Last weekend used to represent an annual event for comic-fans, with announcements of superhero developments, news of crossovers and hints at where characters like Batman and Spiderman were heading in the coming year. But in recent year’s San Diego Comic Con has been as much about film announcements and full of surprise guests as anything else. Tapping into a captive audience and cleverly utilizing the publicity machine that follows the Con, studios have enjoyed some of the best hype for their films through Comic Con audiences.
But how did last weekend just make your great film, whatever stage it’s at, less desirable? Here are some ways the Comic Con screwed your film without you even realizing it.
1.“What’s that, you don’t have any superheroes in it?”
In recent years children’s films have spelt box office gold and spawned sequels to films you wouldn’t believe got greenlit in the first place. Remember the Alvin and the Chipmunks movie? How about the Smurfs which has its sequel releasing this month despite the first film being widely panned. The “silver ticket” is also widely coveted with films like The King’s Speech, Song for Marion, The Last Exotic Marigold Hotel becoming draws with an older generation venturing out as much as the young to watch films geared towards them. Then of course Raindance associated Christopher Nolan blew the lid of all box office expectations with his Dark Knight trilogy earning his place in the box office billion dollar club. Last Summer Joss Whedon’s The Avengers also joined that club and an almighty fight between Marvel and DC has erupted to dominate the box office with superhero movies. So if your pitch movie doesn’t include superheroes, 3D effects and rights to a comic book, you’re in for some tough competition the next few years if not in terms of content, then at least in terms of getting a good release date.
3. “What do you mean it isn’t a franchise film with prequels, sequels and crossover characters? I don’t understand.”
A fantastic article appeared online here about how all of Pixar’s films are related and tie up in one universe. Cool, huh? And we all know Tarantino has his films inter-related in ways too. But when you try and fathom how Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy hints at the wider DC universe, and Man of Steel suggests it’s set within the same world as Batman and that they’re both future members of the Justice League you’ll be forgiven for thinking this is all an elaborate plan. Marvel’s Iron Man kicked off their Phase One which tied together Captain America, Iron Man’s sequel, a Hulk movie and Thor to lead to The Avengers and now most of those films will have sequels this year or next leading up to a sequel to The Avengers. Why am I telling you this? Because all of a sudden when you come to a studio to pitch your life’s best work with all your soul and they ask if there’s no franchise potential, you’ll realize you’re competing with a bigger fish than Nemo. This week’s The Wolverine movie started way back with the first X-Men film 13 years ago in 2000 and already has the character’s next adventure lined up for release next year in Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. When the creator of Keyser Soze is going mainstream you know the game’s changed.
4.“Where are the merchandising figures?”
Most of the films at Comic Con which weren’t superhero movies had merchandise tie ups included. Leave comic books and figures to one side, we’re talking clothes, premium models and more. If you’re not thinking about how to reach out to your audience before you make your movie, brand yourself and engage with your potential audience early on then you really are at a disadvantage compared to everyone else. You may not be able to have merchandising figures to accompany your sales estimates but you can show your reach with your audience and how you’ll take them on the journey with you.
5. “Can you make it for $150 million, in 3D and set it up so we own the audience for the next 5 years at least?”
Cheap films aren’t being made anymore. What was micro budget and low budget are no longer so. The budgets for films has increased and Hollywood wants filmmakers who are up to the task of being able to deliver a $200 million dollar with enough clout and experience to boot. Stakes are higher but they want you to deliver something that can be more a visual feast (even if it means sacrificing story) and they can make more money off through sequels, merchandise and more. When Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns grossed close to $400 million off its circa $270 million budget, Hollywood honchos weren’t happy. They killed his plans for a sequel and opted for the Man of Steel reboot instead. Even Spike Lee’s $45 million budgeted Inside Man sat at the top of the charts and grossed close to $185 million at the box office alone, yet he couldn’t get the sequel greenlit and turned to self financing his next movie Red Hook Summer last year and now is raising money for his next via Kickstarter.
“We like your film but there’s no chance we can release it until after 2017.”
Face the facts: Comic Con plugged the latest Wolverine movie released this week, the X-Men film which features Wolverine releasing next year (2014), the sequel to Thor and Captain America (released late 2013), a new Avenger movie (release date May 1, 2015), a Superman movie featuring Batman releasing in 2 years (2015) followed by a Flash movie (2016) and a Justic League movie in 2017. Add to this mix a new Star Wars film and films featuring movie stars such as Tom Cruise, Will Smith and Brad Pitt all in the pipeline for future release and you realize the fight for release dates is a more serious issue than you thought. The best release dates are already booked and with horror sequels, children’s films, Pixar, Disney and films featuring other names who are box office draws, you’re unsigned untitled pet project may be better than all of them but getting a release date where you’re not fighting to get someone out of a louder, more expensive and 3D screen and in to see your movie is going to be a tough task.
There is hope though because the studios may be choosing to invest in big budget blockbusters that cost a lot of money but make a lot more for what’s put into it, but you guys reading this have the biggest ace up your sleeve in originality. Your very personal, smaller movie is more heart than these loud spectacles will ever be because they have your unique stamp on every frame and they can find their audience, get distribution and create your career. We live in times where the traditional model is changing and financing your film has many options, including crowdfunding, private equity, lucrative tax incentives and tax breaks such as the UK’s EIS scheme to help you get your vision up on the big screen untainted by an overly-interfering brush.
In the past few years I’ve met some wonderful people at festivals across the world, including London’s own Raindance Film Festival, where a filmmaker has made a low budget film that connects with an audience and changes their life forever. Nothing replaces good storytelling and if you couldn’t afford to shoot on 35mm or get a RED camera but made your fantastic high concept film within the constraints you had and it made people feel something, nobody cares how it looks. When Spike Lee made She’s Gotta Have It and Kevin Smith shot Clerks they did it with what they had and these films have stood the test of time to not only entertain but inspire millions through the movies themselves and the stories behind the filmmakers.
Gareth Edwards used his skills to make his indie hit Monsters look like it had millions pumped into it and this year he was at Comic Con presenting a teaser for his next feature, the multi million dollar Godzilla.
The message is clear: Times are tough for the new independent filmmaker but there is hope. As tough as competition may seem, there’ll always be an audience that wants a film that tells a good story and affects them in some way. With advancements in funding streams, distribution no longer needing to be theatrical to be profitable and access to equipment being so much easier, now is the time for filmmakers to make their mark and shine.
There is a whole audience out there wanting to be entertained and as filmmakers we have the opportunity to cater to their needs through our films.
The Raindance Film Festival runs from September 25 to October 6th this year. Spike Lee’s kickstarter project can be found and supported at this address: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/spikelee/the-newest-hottest-spike-lee-joint