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MAKING MOVIES WITHOUT LOSING MONEY: PRACTICAL LESSONS IN FILM FINANCE – DANIEL HARLOW – REVIEW


Movies are a huge part of our shared pop-cultural heritage, and almost every creative person I know harbours at least some small desire to make a film. As a writer, film critic and lifelong movie buff myself, it is the ultimate dream. It’s just the prospect of getting together everything you need – especially money – to make a film that’s the frightening part.

While low budget indie success stories are motivating – Sean Baker filming Tangerine on iPhones on the streets of LA; Shane Carruth making his cult mind-bender Primer for just $7000 – the struggle to find success in the film industry has almost become a subgenre of its own. Johnny Depp as Ed Wood immediately springs to mind, schmoozing a naive prospective investor at a bar, who is interested just as long as there’s a part for her in his film – thanks to Harlow’s book, I now know this is called a “High Wealth Individual”.

Perhaps the most mysterious aspect of the whole endeavour is the money side of things. How do you raise enough money to get your project off the ground? How will it make money once it’s finished? Will your budget stretch to half-decent actors and equipment capable of making the movie watchable? Once that’s all over, how will you raise money for more films if, like a vast majority of low budget movies, yours disappears without a trace? Or worse still, loses money for the people who stumped up the cash to get it made in the first place?

It’s all daunting stuff, and thankfully Daniel Harlow is trying to answer these questions in his book, Making Movies Without Losing Money. A former IT entrepreneur, Harlow spent two years interviewing hundreds of business-minded figures in the industry, seeking answers to help budding filmmakers stand a chance of negotiating this minefield.

Harlow makes no bones about the difficulties involved, and initially the book makes the industry sound as scary as I suspected, laying out the harsh realities. Making a financially profitable film for under $1million has a failure rate of 90%, we find out in the intro. He paints a picture of a whole army of dreamers networking and haunting film festivals, looking for a way in, but aren’t as far along with their projects as they’d like because they spend most of their time seeking funds.

Harlow takes a pragmatic approach. His key thesis is that as an artist, you must consider what will make a commercially attractive product for potential investors, buyers and audiences. Sure, he wants to make movies too, but as a successful businessman himself, he also doesn’t want to throw money away. Would-be auteurs who want to create their vision without compromise will find little solace here – as Harlow matter-of-factly states, if you want to make your movie your way, then you should use your own money.

The breezy 150-page book covers a range of topics with advice that may invert your expectations. Film festivals might seem like a great place to showcase your low-budget indie, but the odds of getting accepted for the big boys (Sundance, Toronto, Berlin, Cannes) are extremely low and a waste of money applying – better off shooting for the less prestigious likes of the AFM (American Film Market) where at least your movie might have a chance of selling.

Similarly, there’s an interesting section on story, genres, film elements – I always assumed that “boobs and blood” was a sure-fire way to turn a profit on a low budget flick. Turns out, not so much these days. Now foreign markets are such a massive consideration, along with streaming platforms like Netflix, too much nudity or gore might turn off a potential buyer. Handy advice? If you’re going to put some T&A in your picture, keep it to one easily edited scene which features no important plot points.

On the flip side, what always sells? “Girls and Ponies”. I’m now scratching my head wondering how I can retrofit some of my dusty old screenplays to fit the “girls and ponies” category…

There’s some detailed background on the more finance-oriented stuff, including overviews of the major players that will be involved in financing and getting your film made, rights to be sold, distribution, publicity, and so on. Going in, I had little knowledge of this side of the industry, and I feared that the book might be a chore. Luckily, Harlow writes in a succinct, no BS manner, peppering his advice with colourful descriptions and anecdotal examples. It all makes for an entertaining read.

For all the daunting obstacles facing the indie filmmaker that this book is aimed at, Harlow ends on a positive note. “For all its turmoil, entertainment is thrilling, creatively challenging and ripe with opportunity. This is the time to be in entertainment.” 

Making Movies Without Losing Money will offer insight, encouragement, and help recalibrate your ideas about how to get your project made, and maybe even make a success of it.

Cold November (2017)


So…guns, huh? I came to review Karl Jacob’s Cold November a few days after the mass shooting in Santa Fe, and viewing the trailer my kneejerk reaction was: “Oh great. A movie about gun nuts.” With the epidemic of school shootings ongoing in America, the prospect of a film about a young girl given a rifle for her twelfth birthday then taken out into the woods to kill a deer wasn’t terribly appealing. I guess that’s the problem with the climate these days – the dialogue between left and right has become so fraught that as soon as anything prickles against one’s political leanings even a little, there’s a tendency to reject it out of hand as belonging to the other side of the aisle.

Even without the current climate, I would’ve expected to find the film quite alienating anyway. I’ve never even held a gun, let alone fired one, so the idea of deliberately giving a rifle to a kid and showing them how to use it is totally nuts to me. Then there’s the whole wilderness thing they’ve got going on over there in the States – that’s completely incomprehensible to someone from England like me. It’s impossible to get lost in England. If you lose your bearings all you have to do is walk in any direction for about half an hour and you’ll come across a roundabout with a Burger King, Tesco and Currys superstore in the middle of it. Or if you don’t fancy walking, just stay still for long enough and you’ll get stumbled upon by walkers, doggers, or someone looking for a good spot to dump a stolen moped.

Anyway, I digress. Cold November introduces us to Florence (Bijou Abas) on her 12th birthday. When we first meet her, she’s playing with toy cars in the garage. A little while later at her birthday meal, her family will give her a gun as a present. The weapon is a cherished heirloom, having been passed down generation to generation. With it her matriarchal family will gently guide her through a rite of passage, taking her out into the woods to shoot her first deer.

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5 Essential British New Wave Movies…


saturday nite

The British New Wave of the ’60s had a profound impact on British culture. The films of that period focused on the ordinary lives of disaffected anti-heroes against a realistic, working-class backdrop—typically shot in stark black and white with terse dialogue in heavy regional accents. The themes and aesthetic are still visible in today’s film, TV, music, literature and art.

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The Toxic Avenger (1984) – 24 Carat Crud…


Toxic 4

Woody Allen famously keeps a drawer full of ideas scribbled on bits of paper, which he dips into when he needs inspiration for a new movie. It’s not always successful – it seems like he forgot to add anything else before shooting Magic in the Moonlight.

I’d like to think Troma movies get made in a similar fashion. I can picture Lloyd Kaufman, Troma’s cartoonish co-founder, sitting in a hottub with a couple of poodle-permed babes, scribbling crazy titles on cocktail napkins and handing them to his butler for safekeeping.

Titles include A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell, Dumpster Baby, Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid, and Maniac Nurses Find Ecstasy. They’re friday night four-pack-and-a-pizza movies, and any VHS junkie from the ’80s and ’90s will be familiar with the lurid cover art of Troma’s oeuvre. They’ve been going for over forty years now, barfing a steady steam of lowbrow, z-grade schlock into existence – if it’s got aliens, monsters, psychos, guns and tits, all on the front of the video box, chances are it’s Troma.

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Christmas Double Bill: It’s a Wonderful Life & Die Hard…


its a wonderful life 2

On the face of it, the festive classic It’s A Wonderful Life couldn’t be more different to action masterpiece Die Hard. The former has become an enduring part of the holiday season in the US and UK, while internet debate still rages about whether Die Hard is actually a Christmas movie at all.

These days we regard the Christmas Movie as a genre all of its own, but it is a relatively new invention. Check out any list of top Christmas films, and almost every popular choice – i.e. movies modern audiences still watch today – was made after World War II.

It’s a Wonderful Life stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a nice guy who finds himself standing on a bridge on Christmas Eve, contemplating suicide. He has sacrificed his dreams for the good of his family, friends and community, but circumstances have led him to the brink of ruin. Thankfully, the heavens are listening to the prayers of his loved ones and dispatch an angel, Clarence (Henry Travers) to show George that he really has a wonderful life. Clarence shows George what life would be like if he was never born, and what a positive impact he has had on everyone around him.

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The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) – Don’t dream it, be it…


Rocky picture 1

“If you’ve been itching for an opportunity to slip out in public dressed in just fishnet stockings, high heels and corset, you’ll be thrilled to hear that at Kino Scala they are showing The Rocky Horror Picture Show as part of this year’s Mezipatra Queer Film Festival. It’s an extra cause for celebration because this year marks the 40th anniversary of the cult classic.

By turn a musical, gaudy pastiche of 30s and 50s sci-fi monster movies, and creaky sex farce, Rocky originally bombed at the box office before being immediately picked up by a young, hip, counterculture crowd who turned late night screenings into a riotous exhibition of dress up, props, sing-a-longs and dancing in the aisles.

The story – for what it’s worth – concerns a young clean cut couple, Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon), caught out one stormy night when their car breaks down. They stumble upon the spooky mansion of Dr Frank N Furter (Tim Curry), on a night of celebration – he is about to reveal to his “unconventional conventionalists” an amazing scientific breakthrough, namely building a musclebound blond hunk named Rocky (Peter Hinwood) for his own sexual pleasure…” to read the rest of this article, please click here (opens in new tab)

10 Indie film treats you must see this fall and winter…


Tangerine pic

2015 has been a disappointing year for film so far. Inside Out and Mad Max: Fury Road were the mainstream high points, and it has taken Independent films to offer some flavour, wit and intelligence – the creepy, cerebral Ex Machina, weird and wonderful The Duke of Burgundy, and the heartbreaking doc Amy.

Now that the blockbuster season is over, indie film makers move to the fore. With award season looming, we can warm our cockles this autumn with some intriguing indie film treats…

45 Years

The buzz grows around the performances of Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling in this poignant drama. Once darlings of the British indie film scene in the Sixties, they make their first appearance together as a retired couple discovering rifts in their marriage when the body of the husband’s former girlfriend is found just before their 45th wedding anniversary…

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Insidious and the Future of the Horror Genre


Insidious

If you’ve even kept half an ear to the ground of the international horror scene over the past decade or so, you can’t have missed Insidious, the haunted-house horror from the minds of James Wan and Leigh Whannel, the duo behind cult slasher flick Saw. I say this because I am someone with my ear permanently stuck to the floor (like that bit in Blair Witch Project!) and constantly on the look out for cool new horror movies, and when I saw the hype surrounding Insidious I swore I would see it as soon as I possibly could. So I did.

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Marketa Lazarová (1967) – Cinephiles will get their rocks off to Vláčil’s Bohemian rhapsody…


marketa lazarova

“There’s a little seen film called The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, where some English miners from the Middle Ages tunnel through the earth and emerge in modern day New Zealand. Watching Marketa Lazarová feels a bit like that in reverse – you leave your comfortable 21st century life behind for a few hours and pop up in medieval Bohemia.

Director František Vláčil spent around two years filming on location, which meant his cast and crew were afforded barely much more luxury than the story’s characters. Few films have such a feeling of history – not in the studious sense of dates and places, but of deep dark waters of time rolling beneath the keel of the present day’s unsteady ship. Few films also match Marketa Lazarová‘s dazzling visuals with such authentic production values, so while the virtuosity of Vláčil’s film making often distracts from the story, the credibility of its setting is never in doubt.” Read the full review here (opens in a seperate tab)

Battle of the brains: The Theory of Everything vs The Imitation Game…


theoryofeverything

“It’s Oscar time again, and I really should know better. I’ve followed the Academy Awards for twenty years, and I realised about fifteen years ago that they aren’t a true reflection of the quality or scope of the year’s movies.

However, like a devoted WWE fan who knows deep down that the fighting isn’t really real, I still can’t stop myself going ape when the contenders start flinging themselves from the top rope come Awards season…” Read the full review here.

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