Indie filmmakers grow up
When he first started making movies 10 years ago, Todd Freeman, a Portland resident, was perfectly happy producing self-described art films for little or no money. Then one day, the 36-year-old son of a Baptist minister decided he wanted to be a little less of a starving auteur and more of a businessman. So in 2010 Freeman and his brother Jason shot three sci-fi horror films back to back. This past July, Cell Count, the third in the series, landed a worldwide distribution deal; the other two are in negotiations.
“We expect all three to be profitable,” says Freeman. The bigger the audience, the more you make money, he says. “And there’s a rabid group of sci-fi thriller fans out there hungry for original content.”
Emboldened by the Hollywood presence and eager to put down roots in a region renowned for its livability, Oregon filmmakers are taking an increasing interest in movies that might actually produce a return on investment — for themselves and the people they employ. That mindset is getting a boost from OMPA, which is currently on a mission to professionalize Oregon’s independent filmmaking hordes — “kids who make a feature for $6,000 get into a couple of film festivals, and expect everyone to work for free,” says Christopher Toyne, a local actor and OMPA board member.
Made for about $100,000 each, the Freeman brothers’ series, says Toyne approvingly, is the kind of project that can “up the game.” Leverage could be canceled; Grimm could be canceled, says Toyne, explaining why Oregon filmmakers need to target bigger- budget films. “We have to have a sustainable, locally grown industry at the same time as having the big shows.”
To make that happen, a growing number of filmmakers are modifying artistic principles and developing a laser focus on the market. Take Sean Skelding, owner of the aptly named Cheezy Flicks Productions, which operates out of an office in Portland’s eastside industrial district. A jovial 43-year-old with a John Candy vibe, Skelding sticks to an unabashedly low-class, B-movie formula, producing films like Stripperland and I Am Virgin with “lots of gore and a little T&A.” The key to his business model, says the Jefferson High graduate, is that he owns his own movie-distribution company, generating a steady income stream and helping guarantee an audience for the films he produces.
Declining to reveal gross revenues, Skelding claims he’s “very comfortable.” Plenty of people are making “wonderful, beautiful movies,” he says. “Are they making money? I don’t know.”
Portland actress Katie O’Grady recently starred in and produced what might be termed a wonderful, beautiful film, Rid of Me, a suburban satire directed by local James Westby and released last fall to widespread critical acclaim. “An ingenious black comedy,” observed The New York Times. Produced for about $107,000, Rid of Me is on its way to recouping its initial investment. But O’Grady, a mother of three who says she wants to shore up the Portland industry, is taking no chances. At work on a documentary about bullying, she’s now producing a horror film called The Basement. “I’m not going to lie to you. I’m in it to make money.”
Genre filmmaking isn’t the only game in town. In search of financial returns, local filmmakers are pursuing other pragmatic business models. Increasingly, they’re borrowing a page from big-studio marketing schemes, in which blockbusters such as Harry Potter spin off into graphic novels and games. The buzzword is “transmedia,” and one local example is Angel Punk, a project developed by Portland’s Relium Media.
A tale of a girl who discovers she is descended from angels, Angel Punk is being released as a young-adult novel, a movie, a graphic novel and a board game, says writer and producer Kevin Curry. The idea is to avoid the pitfalls associated with a stand-alone film that may or may not succeed at the box office — or on video. Instead, says Curry, Angel Punk’s transmedia approach spreads the risk and allows the producers to target different funders and markets depending on the platform. For example: “The book might lean young adult female, and the graphic novel and board game, male.”
That kind of marketing savvy is being touted at an ongoing series of OMPA-hosted film-financing seminars. The goal, says Toyne, who is moderating the series, is to encourage filmmakers to think more about how to fund, market and distribute their projects. Local filmmakers who have hit the big time, relatively speaking, are also preaching the business-planning gospel.
Freeman, for one, recalls the Portland of 10 years ago, when making movies was “more of a social-club mentality; you shot movies with friends.” A decade later, his Cell Count series is backed by two Oregon investors. It also is the first film project to qualify for Oregon’s indigenous film fund, which provides rebates for films produced by Oregonians who spend a minimum of $75,000 but not more than $750,000.
“It’s all progressing in a very positive way,” says Freeman.
Sean Skelding, owner of Cheezy Flicks
//Photo by Sierra Breshears
|A jovial 43-year-old with a John Candy vibe, Skelding sticks to an unabashedly low-class, B-movie formula with “lots of gore and a little T&A.” The key to his business model, says the Jefferson High graduate, is that he owns his own movie-distribution company.|