First Rule of Movie Making: Do Not Make Movies

Sean Cassity is a movie producer and writer living in New York City. He agreed to write a piece about his experiences in the film industry.

In writing this I’m torn between advancing a project I’m actually quite proud of and admitting that it was probably a bad idea to do it. For some reason, I went off and produced a feature film. The film is called IN THE BLOOD and it premieres this Sunday night on LOGO.

Here’s the movie site & trailer to give you an idea of what I’m talking about:

They paid us an actual amount of money to put our movie on TV, so it must be worth watching on some level. Filmmaking is either a cause or a symptom of delirium, so that kind of outside confirmation is vital.

Walking into the screening of the worst film I have ever seen projected, I saw the director outside thanking his friends and relatives for coming. This movie was technically and creatively incompetent on every level; utterly painful to watch. But I can’t go into detail without spoiling the plot for you. It was hard not to feel sorry for the director. Less for working so hard on that sad, little mess than for inviting people he cared about to come see it. Now I worry that when I go about telling people to check out IN THE BLOOD, I’m seen as a carnie trying to sell photos of my ugly baby.

At the other end of the spectrum, a friend of mine from b-school got involved producing a project for some documentary filmmakers. The film was a big hit. You’ve probably seen it. It ended up getting great buzz, a successful theatrical release and an Oscar nomination. I warned him that if he won an Oscar for his first film, I wouldn’t speak to him again. Luckily, the film lost and so we’re still friends. After all that success, I asked him about his next project. Instead he started talking about the most successful producers in the New York indie scene – people we read about, people with consistent creative success, people whose stories inspire us. Then he speculated on what they likely make in a normal year. That was less inspiring. And that’s salient to him, too. So while he’s still working on films, he’s also a tax lawyer and doing quite well with that.

As for me, IN THE BLOOD has consumed 3 years of my life. My wife reminds me that the opportunity cost of doing movies instead of banking is already well into seven figures. And I’ve only go this one movie to show for it. If it had been a huge success out of the gate, large partners would have swarmed in and taken significant weight off my shoulders. With the extra time, reputation and contacts, I might have another film or two behind me. If the film had been a complete failure, I could have taken the experience as war wounds. With the experience and extra time, and I could have another, better film in the can by now. Instead, we were called the first good gay horror movie and won some awards at festivals and were eventually picked up for a broadcast cable premiere by a terrific but young network. It’s a movie that has always seemed on the verge of breaking out, so I owe it to my team – the director, our cast, our investors, and our department heads – to push and shove this rock just a little more; it’s just so close to the top.

We could still break out. LOGO is in 30 million homes and we have the DVD to follow. And there’s not really any genre content aimed at the gay audience that makes a true effort to be something more than just schlocky good fun – not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I’m reminded of my first feature as a PA, where I could spend all day standing on the street, making sure no hoods raided the unit truck and stole all of craft service’s Pop ‘Ems. Ah, the glamour of the movie biz, I would think. Today I’m walking up and down 9th Avenue in Manhattan begging businesses to let me lay down some post cards on their counters, because I have a movie playing on TV this weekend and I feel like no on knows about it. Ah, the glamour of the movie biz.

Obviously, I didn’t choose my line of business for the money. But my landlord did. And it’s his house I’m living in. So if I can’t make money, I can’t make movies. And it turns out that even a movie LOGO wants to show on TV 6 times next week won’t necessarily make me very much if it doesn’t catch on in DVD.

Which leads me to my first rule of filmmaking: Do not make films.

Anyone who makes a film and finds they can’t get into the big festivals or they can’t find a distributor or they can’t even get their friends to comment on anything but than the cinematography, their trouble can be traced back to their failure to follow this first rule.

Will I break this rule again? I hope to. But if I was smart, I would get a job and write a book.

7 thoughts on “First Rule of Movie Making: Do Not Make Movies

  1. Why not try getting the rights to a book and making it into a movie. That seems to be the path followed by many successful filmmakers on their films including, most recently, this one.

    Obviously it’s nice to have a built-in audience for the film, made up of people who read and liked the book, but you also have the expense of buying the rights to the book. Any idea what that costs for a moderately successful novel?

  2. I don’t know much about filmmaking, but it seems to me that there are often way too many people involved.

    Whenever I hear about actors who don’t watch their own movies, I wonder if it’s because they don’t have control over so much of it and don’t want to see what all the other people involved did to their scenes (editors, etc).

  3. MCQ: Depending on the book and how eager the rights holder is to get a movie made of their work, the cost of getting adaptation rights to a book can run from free or into the millions. But usually these deals are done with 18-36 month options with extension clauses — say like 10 grand against 50 for simplicity.

    The built in audience helps if the book is relatively successful, but any agent will make you pay for that audience. More than having the movie ‘pre-sold’ that way is the fact that it’s ‘pre-visualized.’ A published book shows the story has already been successfully told in one medium and helps the deal makers see how it can be expressed next as movie. Fewer people than you would hope in Hollywood are able to read a script, which is really just a blueprint, and visualize it as a completed movie.

  4. Susan M — It is scary how much control the director and editor have over the actors’ performances when they are sitting in a room with that footage. And often they find themselves working very hard to make a bad performance seem competent. They can go the other way, too.

    I was helping out a bit at Miramax just before taking off to produce IN THE BLOOD, and my first task was to watch all the dailies of HOSTAGE with Bruce Willis, and select the best take of each set up to show the execs how things were coming along. After seeing the completed movie, I have to say there’s a much better movie in the footage than what they edited together. But the movie I’m thinking of would have a much less frenetic pace. They didn’t seem to trust the patience of their audience.

    There are a lot of people involved in making a movie, and any one of them can make the decision that hurts it. Sometimes that person is you. (well, not you, specifically, susan.)

  5. Sean: So, if I’m reading you right, you’re saying that yes, it would be nice to have a successful novel to adapt, but it’s probably going to cost you more than you can pay.

    I guess that’s why most successful novels are made into movies by large studios with large bankrolls. Still, it seems like there are existing books out there that would make good movies that have not already been bought up.

    For example, I heard that The Time Traveller’s Wife was bought by Plan B, but that it is in limbo because of the rift between the principals in that company. There has to be a way to acquire the rights to books like that so the movie can actually get made. That would be a great movie, btw.

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