Sunday, October 25, 2009

Markets, Sequels and Other Things Filmmakers Need To Understand

As the name of the blog implies, I am all about the business side of entertainment. I suppose I'm fairly creative for a lawyer, but I inevitably look at the entertainment business as a fun, challenging and interesting way of making money. If you're not in it for that reason, then what you're doing isn't really a business.

(As an aside, I do serve as a music supervisor for films and there is certainly a creative element to that. My background in music serves me well in that regard, but it doesn't change my view of film primarily as a business rather than a purely creative endeavor.)

That's why I was so happy and excited to read this article from Clive Frayne in his Filmutopia blog. (By the way, Clive is a very smart guy and everyone should be following his tweets and reading his blog. He really understands the business of independent film.) Clive gives an intelligent and articulate discussion of how and when to find the market for your film. I really don't need to reiterate his points. Just read the article and pay close attention.

I find it interesting that Clive published this particular article on the same day that the L.A. Times blog was reporting that Paramount is already talking about the sequel to Paranormal Activity. For those of you who live under a rock (or intentionally avoid reading news about films other than your own), Paranormal Activity was made for about $15,000, sold for about $300,000 and was the top grossing film in the domestic market this past weekend, having earned over $62.5 million so far. Brad Grey says it might be the most profitable Paramount release of all time.

So, there is no question Paramount will release a sequel, right? After all, they don't need to find the market. The market is everyone who is flocking to the first one. Just feed them another helping, right? Maybe not.

The Times blog makes the obvious point about the sequel to Blair Witch Project (which you probably know was a huge financial flop -- and a terrible movie). The question might be whether it is logically inconsistent to attempt a sequel to an anomaly. Greek Wedding and Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity are anomalies. They are small, inexpensive films that find an audience and grow beyond anyone's expectation. I don't think you can plan that, and thus I'm not sure you can have a successful sequel to that kind of film.

On the other hand, Saw VI also came out this weekend (losing the box office race by a wide margin to Paranormal Activity). That's perhaps the best example of many small horror films that have spawned mini-franchises, earning more profits with each new release.

Ironically, the biggest problem for Paranormal Activity 2 might be that the budget for the sequel will be several million dollars. Big budgets can create lazy filmmaking where the genuine edginess of the inexpensive original is replaced by a slickness that is much less intense and thus much less scary.

Ok, I'm starting to talk like a creative guy. I'm completely out of my element. So, you real filmmakers tell me -- can Paranormal Activity 2 ever be as scary as the original, or is it destined to lose money? If you were Paramount, what would you do to secure the market from the first film, and ensure the success of the sequel? (Clive, if you have an opinion on this, I would love to hear it.)


filmutopia (clive) said...

Hi Roger... thanks for your kind words about my blog.

The Paranormal Activity sequel question is interesting. In many respects, as a movie maker, I'm not sure I'd want to be in the position of just having had a massive hit with a no budget movie and now to be lumbered with the Studio's expectation to pull a sequel out of thin air. Not every horror movie is capable of supporting a franchise.

I suppose for me the real question is whether Paramount want Paranormal Activity II or whether they want another great movie from this person. The dream ticket for both the studio and the movie maker is going to be if Paranormal Activity II is what he would have done anyway... or what he would have done if he'd had the resources. Where I see the potential danger is if this is being driven purely by the marketing department... "Hey the audiences love this PA, let's have this kid knock out another one"

The big problem from a marketing point of view is audience expectations will change on the second movie... for the first the lack of budget becomes part of the mythology... rooting for the little guy. The moment the movie maker is under the wing of the studio for production, there is going to be a swing to "Well, now you're on the inside, this next movie better be totally freakin' awesome or we'll hate you."

One of factors that the Studios often seem to miss with these breakout movies, is that a lot of the market support for them comes from a rebellious anti-Hollywood place... what cynical audiences expect is for the studio to want to milk the cow dry with a sequel...when they do that, they've got to overcome their negative expectation that the Studios will ruin it.

If it was my call over at Paramount I'd give the guy a better camera and some lights... and then tell him to get out there and make something else. I'd PR it with press releases saying "I'll always be an indie, says Paranormal Activity director"... but it's not my call and I guess we'll see how it shakes out.

Roger Goff said...

Clive - I guess the lesson here is that when you're building a market for your film, if you don't meet their expectations, they could become a virtual angry mob!