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Caffeinated Clint – Trouble in Hollywood

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The economy is in dire straits right now, and the recession has significantly affected the film industry. I don’t know any filmmaker, screenwriter or actor – or for that matter, studio (I just heard Dimension have laid off most of their staff) – that hasn’t been hit hard by the global crisis. I can’t tell you how many film projects have gone under this year – and they’re not all independent movies – but also how many noteworthy actors have been forced to take up SAG ultra-low budget movies just to make ends meet (One of the stars of TVs “Heroes”, for instance, is working for a couple-a-hundred bucks a day on a movie at the moment. This time last year, he/she would have sneezed at such an offer). Quite a few large studio films, all cocked and ready to fire, were cancelled only a few weeks shy of their start dates because of the cash situation – not unheard of, but so many of them folding at the same time? Now that’s new. All you need to do is go back over the past few months and read about some of the projects that were expected to be filming right now. You’ll notice that probably only fifty percent of them actually ended up going before the cameras- the rest fell by the wayside.

Heck, I can attest to it myself – we (when I say we, I refer to my producing partner and I) had a film that was supposed to roll on February 14 (titled “First Howl”) that was inopportunely halted at the last minute because of the economic situation.

The company in charge of the pic, and the one that planned to bankroll it, had had such a shocking few months financially (to the point where they’ve now, reportedly, going into receivership) that it ultimately couldn’t follow through on their plans to make it – or the other two or three films they’d planned to shoot this year – so it was put on pause.

Very depressing stuff – especially for those that had already bought their plane ticket, arrange accommodation for the 20-week-shoot and made sure cheesesticks were part of the catering. When you’ve got creatures being designed, people out scouting locations, and a cast that had cleared their schedules so they can do the film… it ain’t a good situation. But I don’t blame the executives on the pic, I blame the economy. Nobody saw this crash coming as fast as it did. (You’ll be happy to know the film is back on schedule – with an all-new team. I think you’re going to love Eric Stoltz in this- he’s a mad-man! And C.Thomas Howell’s going to win a few more fans, too). As it turned out, it was probably a good thing (for me, anyway), because a week or so later, another feature of ours received financing and we’re now fastly approaching its start date.

‘’Like pretty much all fields in the world it’s impossible to not feel some kind of pinch from the economic hit”, says director David Flores (“Lake Placid 2″), who says he recently lost a local directing job because production was moved to the more affordable locale of Canada at the last minute.

“It’s a mess man”, adds Steven Monroe (“Sasquatch Mountain”, “Dual”, “Complacent”). “If you don’t do series, or the big studio films, you are screwed…..everything in between is screwed.”

Writer (and actor) Jonathan Schaech has been trying to get a feature film version of Stephen King’s classic “From a Buick 8″ up for a couple of years now. Despite the fact Tobe Hooper  – director of classics like “Texas Chainsaw” and “Poltergeist” – is attached to direct, he’s had no luck.

Schaech, who most will remember for his role as the chauvinistic lead singer in Tom Hanks’ “That Thing You Do!”, tells Bloody Disgusting that King himself loves the script for the film version, but that doesn’t help get the movie made.

“It’s a shame, man. It would be so much fun to make that movie and everyone will love it, too. Its not an easy time right now to make any kind of film in the business. The economy is piss-poor and film production is down 57 percent. I hope that we can make the movie. We really need this chance. It will get made one day. I’m pretty certain of it.”

It’s not only independent movies that have been affected – the direct-to-video market has also been hit hard. Films starring the likes of Steven Seagal and Jean Claude Van Damme have taken a big hit this year.

‘’The STV and DVD market definitely went soft”, says Joe Halpin, who works with Seagal. “The budgets dropped significantly when the economy started to slow. That manifested into several financial issues for those of us that package independent films in the 5-15 million dollar range. The Studios and Networks lowered their contributions because of the financial strain they experienced after the economy softened. Also the stars we typically need to attach for financing were no longer commanding sufficient foreign pre-sale numbers. And finally what a lot of us failed to anticipate was the level of consumption the viewer will tolerate. In essence we saturated the market with too much product — and simply created less of an interest in the releases.”

Halpin adds, “To combat that and to stay competitive in the entertainment industry I’ve changed my business plan slightly. I still package features but now I also develop Reality Shows. These types of formats fill the consumers need for entertainment while allowing us and the networks to produce something on a much tighter budget.”

Joel Soisson and I are currently producing a rather biggish movie together. We were chatting about the economic situation today and whilst he believes the studio pictures – the big movies; ours for instance – will be fine, the independent movies have been really hurt.

“The blockbuster movies are making even more money than before”, Soisson, who produced “Pulse” and “The Prophecy” said. “The lower budget indies, far less”.

As Halpin says above, the B-actors don’t mean as much anymore. Soisson agrees with his comments.

“The few big name actors that drive the successful commercial films are getting as much work and money as ever.  And nobody else really matters.  The B+ names don’t even guarantee a decent video release anymore.  So of course they’ll work for less.  Because, at the end of the day, they can’t really help you get a theatrical release.  Your film simply has to be amazing and called Slumdog Millionaire.”

A friend of mine, Andrew Putschoegl, who was the co-editor and producer of “Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party”, has a personal story to share about how the economy has stalled his blossoming career.

“I recently signed with a commercial production company”, explains Putschoeg. My reel is, I’m told, pretty awesome. I’ve developed it over the years and have been ready to rock and roll. The problem is that with corporations cutting back on their ad spending, ad agencies are able to get the top guys to do work that would usually be considered “beneath” them — so it’s a domino effect. The mid-level guys then take the low-budget work and those of us who are just breaking in to that side of the biz are left with nothing to even try for.

“The SAG issue was also a problem — couldn’t have come at a worse time. With the studios putting the majority of features on the back burner until the issue is resolved, tens of thousands of jobs that rely on steady film and tv work have been on hold or lost — some will never return.

“I know that the majority of my friends who work on studio projects have been barely scraping by and eating through their savings rapidly because they don’t have work. And the work they do have is pretty crappy — the day and week rates are offensively low… and by the time you calculate the hours worked, they’re barely making minimum wage.

“I know I’ve taken editing gigs that I would usually turn down. At the same time I – and lots of other people – have used this time to continue developing our own projects. Because people aren’t working, friends and colleagues are willing to step up and help for free just so there’s something to do — and if it’s working with friends, then it takes the edge off the fact that there’s no money. I think you’re seeing a number of bigger names doing their own internet projects — the stuff on funnyordie.com with name celebrities is pretty surprising. Some of it is obviously promotional (Zac Efron’s Pool Party — released just before 17 Again), but plenty of it is not (The Gaythering Storm).”

A friend at Disney says they “won’t even hire anyone that’s not got a fat CV when it comes to producing or editing – especially not at the moment. I know, it’s a bad sad because it’s means only the big guys get work, but we’re all just trying to stay afloat… and can’t take risks at the moment. And you wonder why we’re doing so many sequels, remakes and video-game movies at the moment?”

Another friend, filmmaker Derek Milton, who is prepping an astonishingly original horror/western called ‘’Death Keeps Coming” (starring the likes of Dee Wallace, Ernest Borgnine and Chad Everett), says “Perhaps it’s not hurt it as bad as typical generic businesses. But, it has hit us just the same. On one hand, I feel that it hasn’t hurt ‘the business’ because people more than ever, feel the need to go out and take in a film because they feel the need to escape from their current situation. On the other hand, investors are reluctant to release funds to make films for fear of falling flat on their faces because of that very economy. In short, it’s a true Catch 22 situation.”

The Tarantino-produced western, of which Milton is also the scribe, was, like many independent films, originally set to go before the cameras earlier this year. It’s been pushed back a bit – because of “the current economy”, says Milton, adding “But, I am a firm believer that things will always turn around and in this case, they need to turn around. People will always need to take in a little entertainment – a big part of the reason I do what I do.”

Actor Muse Watson, who in-between stints on high-profile TV series like “Prison Break” and “N.C.I.S” does a fair few independent movies, says “word on the street in Hollywood is that the tight credit market has just about eliminated “foreign” distribution since foreign brokers borrow money to finance exhibition and then re-pay the loan thru revenues.  Since they can’t borrow the money to buy movie rights, the market has slumped to nothing. This effects indie production a lot”

Independent films some time count on Foreign sales to recoup their investments, leaving domestic as profit.

Watson, who played D.B Cooper on Brett Ratner’s “Prison Break” and will reunite with Ratner on the new series “Cop House”, says the salaries of many TV stars have also been slashed of late.

“Advertisers have split their expenditures between TV and the internet so ad dollars for TV programs will not support high talent salaries anymore.  This means that shows with talent making 100 grand an episode are in danger of being cancelled even though their viewer numbers are good.”

This time last year, 85% of the pilots were SAG and 15% were AFTRA, explains Watson.

“This year, because AFTRA rates are lower and current labor negotiations incomplete, 85% of the only 60 pilots for the year are AFTRA.  This interprets down to lower pay and negligible residuals per the AFTRA contract.”

Next to no independent features – this may even be true for studio films – are being filmed in Los Angeles right now. Quite a few filmmakers have told me that they’ve lost directing gigs because the producers have, at the 11th hour, decided to shift production elsewhere – usually Canada.

“I don’t ever remember that happening”, says Watson, who has appeared in such films as “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and “Dead Birds”.  “Runaway Features are going to Canada and other foreign locations or they are going to states with tax incentives.  Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee….are landing some filming projects, but again, with the tight money market, very few total are being made.  It is a time in the industry that makes me glad I am not just starting out.  With the new requirements for income on health coverage and the producer’s plans to eliminate residuals I don’t know how young actors are going to make a living wage.  Glad I am close to retirement… also glad I began my new career as a producer”.

Another actor, who wishes to remain anonymous but who’d you’d all know from TVs “CSI Miami”, tells me that “everybody you’ve chatted to previously about this is correct – salaries are getting smaller, production is leaving L.A, and independent films are being shut down all over the place. You’re actually very lucky you go to film Complacent in Los Angeles – maybe if it were today, that wouldn’t be possible. I’m pretty much open to anything at the moment – if the role is OK, I’ll take 100 bucks a day. But as for all those films I planned on producing this year? Fuggedaboutit!”.

So for all those wondering “when so-and-so is going to happen?” or “whatever happened to x movie?” – there lies your answer. Oh, and no, we’re not reading scripts at the moment – you may have heard, there’s not a lot of producing capital in the indy filmmaker’s pot at the moment.

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About Caffeinated Clint

The writer/publicist/producer who wears the editor hat on Moviehole. Favorite films include "Say Anything...", "The Hunt for Red October", "Jerry Maguire", "Almost Famous", "Die Hard", "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo", "Young Guns", "American Psycho", "Back to the Future" and the "Star Wars" series.
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