Times are changing in the media world quickly. Moviepass just bought Moviefone and it seems that every blog is talking about how silicon valley is replacing Hollywood studios. One thing that has proved to be true is that if you want to get attention you need to stand out. It used to be that a great story was enough to stand out and get recognized, but I fear that the time where a good film was all it took to break through the thousands of film festival submissions is disappearing fast.
Recently I had a nice chat with a director friend I know about crafting a no-budget feature and one of the things we started talking about was doing something that Hollywood wouldn’t touch. There is a formula in Hollywood that covers 99% of all films and it goes something like this: write a 3-act structure in a marketable genre, squeeze as much production value out of your budget as you can, and cast the most recognizable actors you can afford. That business model used to be what independent filmmakers would copy to try to get their own foot in the door when making their own feature film – but with the vast amount of material coming out these days I think things need a little shaking up.
Instead of trying to beat the studios or production companies at their own game I think a great way to approach filmmaking might be to think about making movies that Hollywood won’t. What does that mean? Well, you have to break some of the rules or at least break one in a big way.
The first and most obvious thing to break is the subject matter of the film. Some films are deemed unmakeable because of their content. Sometimes it’s called unmakeable because the audience is just too small (if you’ve always wanted to do a film for lovers of the Australian house moth this is you) – but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about making things that are taboo, scandalous, even incendiary.
You want to make something that scares Hollywood
You want to make something that scares Hollywood. This could exist in any genre. You could have an opinion on something that Hollywood infamously disagrees with(like how GREAT a president Donald Trump is), or take the men’s side of the argument on the #metoo movement. You could do something so violent, or sexual that most studios would be queasy about greelighting it – there are a lot of options but it has to be something you resonate with as a director otherwise it will just feel like a gimmick and people tend to run away from those pretty quickly.
Another way you can break with the norms is playing around with the format of your film. There are tons of people making movies on an iPhone these days, but how many of them are shooting them vertically instead of in landscape mode? That might be the new way people ingest movies and you could be one of the pioneers of the format. Obviously, you’d be hurting your chance at theatrical distribution but that’s the point of this – to shake things up.
You could also experiment with how long the film is or if it’s released in episodes. You could make the film 9 hours long and release it in chunks like a series but have no consistency. Some episodes could be five minutes and others forty – it will definitely get people questioning what’s going on but if it serves the story it could be really interesting.
You could shoot parts of your movie one way and other parts in an entirely different way. One could be shot on an iPhone in first person and others could be shot on an 8k Red in classic cinema style. This could be really interesting in the context of a murder mystery. There have been enough whodunnit podcasts that have proved successful that you could really play with that genre visually in a way that nobody’s ever done before. The idea of this is to get creative so play with it.
One thing that scares Hollywood more than anything is financial failure. Movies are expensive and when they hear of someone who knows how to make money in a way they haven’t thought of it’s a guaranteed way to get their attention. Maybe you figure out how to make your movie cheap enough that you don’t actually charge for it? Maybe you can run a Kickstarter campaign that raises 500,000 and since you don’t have to pay it back maybe you spend all of it on marketing a FREE movie. Sure it won’t make you money, but if the movie is good you could build one hell of an email list of loyal fans that you can continue marketing to…which could actually be a good trade.
Perhaps you leak your film through certain avenues or team up with a local band who gives away your film with the purchase of any of their songs on iTunes. There are tons of ways to break the distribution model. The truth is that you don’t even have to make money to get people’s attention – you just need to find a way to win over an audience’s attention. There are dozens of youtube stars out there that haven’t ever successfully charged people a nickel to view their content and yet because of their ability to hold a large audience’s attention they are now getting offers from studios to have parts in movies.
Casting and other wacky ideas
If you don’t have millions of dollars to be able to hire A-list Hollywood talent you’re going to be headed for an uphill battle to get people’s attention. Instead of trying to cast the biggest names you can, maybe you go the other way and cast other known personalities. Maybe your film stars retired politicians or athletes? Or perhaps your entire cast is made up of veterans. Maybe the star of your film is a young Black child but you cast a 90-year-old Asian woman to play the part and you don’t even mention it during the film once.
You can really bend an audience’s mind with casting when you step outside the box and there are plenty of marketing angles that might actually benefit you when it comes time to sell the film. Think about how Hollywood decided one day to start making movies with talking animals as the stars instead of people – it worked like a charm, didn’t it? Some of the most profitable films of all time have been starring talking animals – and they don’t get any residuals so the studio is laughing all the way to the bank. What if instead of an animal your star was a talking paper puppet? What if you made an action film starring nothing but paraplegics? You’re really only limited by your creativity.
One thing I would definitely do though is only chose to bend or break one rule. I wouldn’t make a film shot vertically on an iPhone starring only 90+-year-old actors in a non-genre that was leaked online in varying chunks of time. Any one of those things on their own might be a great way to get attention, but when you pile on those experiments on top of one another you end up with something confusing enough for people to just dismiss it as experimental art that they simply don’t understand (right before they rewatch another episode of “The Office.”)