A little later than planned courtesy of illness, here's the second part of my interview with writer/director/producer/actor Tim Sullivan. Last week, you read our conversation on his producing efforts with BLOODY BLOODY BIBLE CAMP, CUT/PRINT and Stephen King's ONE FOR THE ROAD (HERE).
In today's piece, Tim shares his experience of self-distribution and the tribulations of the ever-changing film industry. Like I said last time, this is an absolute must-read for any independent film-maker or aspiring artist. Tim goes into detail on a subject that many are hesitant to discuss and offers a very candid account of how his dealings with distributors over the last decade have dramatically shaped his career plans for the future.
BRITGEEK: With the features, you're going the self-distribution route. For the benefit of readers, why did you decide to go down that road and what do you hope to achieve?
TIM SULLIVAN: Well, it's very interesting. November 1st marks the ninth anniversary of the first day of filming of 2001 MANIACS, and it is amazing how the market and indie horror and just the film landscape have changed in a mere nine years. Where I might have gotten a million-and-a-half for 2001 MANIACS, now the market dictates that you make the same type of film for maybe $250,000, I kid you not, and it's amazing to me today that 250,000 is actually considered a high budget for an indie horror film in order for it to make a profit, because there's no exhibition; there's really no theatres to show these films, there's no drive-ins, there's no grindhouses, now there's no Blockbusters.
Pretty much we've got VOD, but you do the math, if somebody pays ten dollars a month to have access to every movie they want on Netflix, how much do you think indie film-makers are really going to get? A couple of pennies if [that]? So the bottom line is you're being asked to make movies for $50,000 and the good news is you can actually. You can. You're not going to get something like THE AVENGERS in IMAX 3D or SKYFALL, but you can get some quirky, cool alternative programming thanks to the cameras [being] cheap, editing you can do on your computer, you can do the sound design and people can create music, and there's always film school students and fans who are talented and are willing to help out for experience, so you can get some good movies done.
I learned this on CHILLERAMA. CHILLERAMA was made for probably what Michael Bay's limo service on any one of his films would be, and even with that low, low price, because we went through an actual distributor, you go to their office and they [have] a giant office with 150 people with overheads that they have to pay, and every single thing they bill you for. They have a lunch to discuss it, that's a couple hundred bucks they knock off the profits. So by the time they're paying you what the movie made, they deduct this and they deduct that and they have to pay this for that, you're left with nothing.
You go to a convention and you sell a signed copy of your movie for 30, 40 dollars, the fans are happy because they get to meet you, they get a photograph, they get a personal copy. We, the film-makers, make more money [there] than we do from the distributor. I may, if I'm lucky, get a couple of pennies for every CHILLERAMA sold, but if we sell it ourselves we get it all, and it's not a matter of greed, it's a matter of survival, because this is our jobs, and when all you're getting is a couple of pennies for a movie that took a year-and-a-half of your life to make and promote, it just isn't worth it, so you either become a teacher at a film school or a librarian or you become a waiter, or you find a way to make the movies at a low budget and then you sell them directly to your fanbase off of Facebook, off a website, off a webstore, and what I find is the fans actually prefer that.
Quite frankly, in 1980 if I had a choice between going to Tower Records and buying AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and knowing that John Landis is only making a buck, or if I could have actually bought AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON from John Landis, personally signed to me along with a picture of him signing it, limited, numbered edition for ten or twenty bucks more than Tower Records or Amazon these days, fuck yeah I would have done that. I'd have gladly bought HALLOWEEN from John Carpenter and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET from Wes Craven.
Now, social media has completely lowered the wall between the audience and the film-maker, and it's really voting with your purchase. If you want to see movies that are very unique like V/H/S and THE THEATRE BIZARRE and HATCHET, these kind of really cool movies, honestly the only way you can ever keep these movies alive is if you support with your dollar and get them directly from the film-maker.
Of course, the non-fan will be content just getting it downloaded for a buck on Netflix, but the real fan wants that hard copy with the nice booklet and the nice packaging and the bells and all the extras that you can't get anywhere else, and an autograph, so really this is becoming the future for indie film-making. I tested the waters with my uncut, deluxe, remixed, remastered version of WEREBEARS. Unfortunately, by the time my mix and colour correction got to the distributor, something went wrong. It was like you're running and running and running with this torch, you spend a year-and-a-half getting your movie perfect, and then you pass the torch off to the distributor and somehow in the mastering they drop the torch, it lives like that forever for everybody.
It was not the mix that I wanted and it was not the colour correction that I wanted, so I was finally able to fix that and present the film with the eight minutes that I always wanted to be in there and offer it to the fans, and it's been a great success. … We decided to do the same with BLOODY BLOODY BIBLE CAMP and that's been a big success, and now CUT/PRINT is going to be distributed the same way.
BG: What advice would you have, in terms of self-distribution, for independent film-makers who perhaps don't have a fanbase or are just starting out and aren't established.
TS: That's a very good point. I am blessed in that I've been able to build a fanbase, and what I would say about that is make it go hand-in-hand. Build your fanbase. Get it out there on Facebook, get a website going for your film, take banner ads out in Fangoria and Rue Morgue and Horror Hound, and hit Dread Central and Shock Till You Drop and Ain't It Cool News and just get it out there, and Twitter it.
The thing is it will happen because I discover films all the time that way. In the last issue of Rue Morgue, I see people doing it, they're making their own films and they're selling it, and these things look cool. I've bought films like that. The best horror movies of this year were never in theatres and never in Red Box. I've seen the most creative stuff, maybe they're not the most technically proficient at times, but the themes and what they're trying to do... I would rather see these kinds of films than go see THE APPARITION or THE POSSESSION... they're all the same movie [laughs], I've seen them before.
BG: Do you think it would be a worthwhile investment so to speak if an independent film-maker would go out to try and get distribution deals as a means to get their name out there, with the intention of eventually self-distributing?
TS: Yes, and I still will do that if they make me the right deal, but it's amazing nowadays, most distributors, they won't give you anything, but they'll say, 'Oh, we'll put it out there for you and we'll pay for the marketing,' and there is some value to that, but what I say to any independent film-maker is in your contract with your distributor, make sure that you are allowed to buy unlimited copies of your movie at cost, so for instance, when you see Robert Englund or when you see any actor at a convention selling copies of his movie, hopefully they were able to buy those copies from the studio at cost, let's say anywhere between four and five dollars. What you can do is you can have a distributor get the movie out there in the Targets and the Walmarts and whatever the hell is left... Red Box [laughs], and then you can offer what's called an enhanced version, meaning you can take that DVD or Blu-ray and then you can autograph it or include an 8x10 or something to make it enhanced, which then you can sell directly to an audience, and that's where you're going to make the money, because trust me, you will never see a dime from the distributor.
Every single movie I've made – MANIACS, FIELD OF SCREAMS, DRIFTWOOD, HOOD OF HORROR and CHILLERAMA – I am sad to say I have never gotten one penny in back-end profit participation from any of those studios. Not a cent. With CHILLERAMA, me and Adam and Adam and Joe, we made CHILLERAMA for no money. We didn't take a director or writer or acting salary. We were doing it for the back-end. Well, unfortunately there never was a back-end, so the only way the four of us will ever see money from our creation and efforts on CHILLERAMA is to sell copies of the film ourselves, but you know what? That's fine because you can do well. So, it's a cold, sobering fact.
Here's the thing: if you're lucky enough to have a studio distributor fund your movie, make sure you get a nice upfront salary or something because that's all you're ever going to see. Secondly, make sure that you can get copies for five dollars that you then sell for twenty-five dollars, and it adds up. You sell a thousand copies at forty dollars, that's worth the year-and-a-half you spent making that movie, but it's a whole new ball game, and I know that film-makers are hesitant to talk about this, but I think it's very important because it's the reality of the new market.
For every guy who got lucky enough to direct THE POSSESSION and hopefully make some good money off of that, there's a thousand other guys who made low-budget films [who] put just as much time and energy into it, and probably made a better film, and got no money. This is not about getting rich, this is just about being able to afford to remain an independent film-maker.
BG: I think it's really great that you've raised that point because I think many independent film-makers just see a goal with a contract with a company to put their film out, and they think that's it, they're going to be set, on to the next project, but clearly with the way the industry's changed, that just isn't the case any more.
TS: And it's not like we're Bryan Singer getting $20 million to direct X-MEN and another two million to direct the season premiere episode of HOUSE. A lot of directors will do a dip into television or cable, and god bless them, I would take that job too, but you direct an hour of television, you spend four weeks of your life on it and you make millions. You're set for life if you live humbly like most of us do.
It's really interesting, but I have to say that just as there's that big discussion in America right now with the presidential electorate about the one percent and the ninety-nine percent, that's exactly how it is in Hollywood, and the one percent is the Steven Spielbergs and the George Lucas' and the Bryan Singers and the Michael Bays, and then the ninety-nine percent is most other independent film-makers out there, and that's the reality.
But the good news is, if you're cool with not living in a twenty-room mansion on Malibu with a moat and twenty limousines at your disposal, but if you just live a normal life as most people do, you can actually keep your roof over your head and every now and then buy the James Bond box-set when it comes out on Blu-ray and have a decent life as a film-maker.
What I've seen happen to, and I've got to be honest with you, a lot of film-makers who were used to the salaries – this happened with film-maker, actors, musicians – they're used to the time when you would get a million dollars to direct a movie and an advance on your first album for a million dollars, and then what happens was you'd have that money coming in so you buy the big house, you buy the two cars, you marry the person who sucks money out of you, and suddenly now that the market has changed, they don't know what to do. If I say I'm low on money that means I'm wondering how I'm going to pay the rent. When they say they're low on money that means, 'Who do I get rid of, the gardener, the maid, the cook or the pool man?' And they can't adapt.
They're so used to making movies where they just keep throwing money at it, you give them a Cannon HD and a three-man crew and tell them to go make something in ten days, they don't know what to do. So who really are the true artists and the true film-makers, the guys who have a hundred days to make a movie and have unlimited budgets and can shoot something from every angle and spend a year editing and re-edit and re-shoot, and there's always that safety net underneath them, or the film-maker who's told you have ten days, no re-shoots, no over-schedule, over-budget, and you've got to tell this story in ten days or you're fired? I really think that hunger and a modicum of poverty so to speak [laughs], metaphorically, makes better artists because when you're comfortable, you get lazy, and then you get movies like THE PHANTOM MENACE, ATTACK OF THE CLONES and REVENGE OF THE SITH [laughs].
BG: Where do you see movie distribution in the next five or ten years?
TS: God, I don't even know if I do. I don't know. Look at the music industry. The music labels are practically non-existent. What happened in the music industry? It's almost like people give away their music so they can make money off of touring and merchandising and licensing their songs to cell phone signals. Now, when you have plasma TVs and surround sound and 3D in your own home, it's going to take something really special to get the average Joe out into the theatre.
This is so shocking to me, my friend Pete Schink, who wrote the movie LEGION and edited DETROIT ROCK CITY, he's a professor at a film college here that will remain nameless in LA in editing, and he had his first class last week. Now, these aren't just the average kids, these are kids who are in film school. 'How many of you know who Coppola is?' Like nobody raised their hand. 'Whoever heard of Martin Scorsese?' No one raised their hand. 'How many times do you guys go to the movies a month?' Oh, maybe once or twice. These are film students, so the bottom line is, unless it's that big, epic 3D giant screen, IMAX or SKYFALL, and with drive-ins now practically dinosaurs and video stores dinosaurs, most people are content to watch movies – it shocks me – on their Blackberry or their laptop or their iPad. For me, movies were made to be seen on a giant screen with surround sound with a large audience, but most people seem to like watching them on a little 8x10 iPad while they're listening to Spotify coming out of their computer, and they're not paying for Spotify.
I really don't know. Hopefully the pendulum will swing so far that people are just so tired of the same old shit and they'll support indie musicians and indie film-makers, but I think you're going to see it getting to the point where the only films that are distributed are those big blockbusters, and it's going to be more like indie bands and indie film-makers, and if you're good and if you can not have high overhead for your lifestyle and really are doing it for the joy of making a movie and not because you just want to become stupid-rich, I think it'll be okay, but it's definitely a shifting landscape and it's adapt or die, it really is. It's adapt or die.
BG: I hope so. I was trying to think how I would answer that question myself earlier because, as you know, I've dabbled in the industry for the last couple of years, but it's kind of scary how uncertain the future is with the industry in terms of distribution. It could either go one way or the other.
TS: It can. The one other thing that's so funny is I remember reading Famous Monsters magazine when I was a kid. Even during the depression when people were in food lines, somehow people managed to come up with a nickel to go see KING KONG and make it the blockbuster it was. When things are shitty, movies and music take our minds off of things for a while.
In horror, when the world is so horrifying on the outside, to be able to go into a movie theatre and turn off your mind or watch something on an iPod or iPad, we face the horrors safely and get a catharsis, an exorcism so to speak, and for at least that moment or that day we feel better until the next headline hits us about global warming or Libya or whatever, and that's life, man. Enjoy those little moments. Whether it's a Disney film or HOSTEL that takes your mind away, god bless.
BS: Absolutely. Movies are escapism, that's what it all comes down to really. 90 minutes or 120 minutes of an experience, just turn off everything else and get sucked into a film and the fiction.
Check out the third and final part of my interview with Tim on Wednesday, where we delve further into BLOODY BLOODY BIBLE CAMP and what it was like to become a transvestite killer nun opposite Reggie Bannister, plus a little bit more on self-distribution and Tim's future projects.
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