Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Rhode Island Film Community: What the ****?

I was born and raised in Rhode Island. I believe in Rhode Island. I fear for Rhode Island.

For the past six years I’ve been working in the Film Industry in and around New York City in several different capacities and several different positions. I learned more than I ever thought possible and it was truly the best experience of my life so far. One of the projects I worked on in New York provided an opportunity for me to return to, and work, back in Rhode Island. I couldn’t be more excited. I took the job, came back to the state, and due to extenuating circumstances, the project fell thru and didn’t happen. I would have instantly returned to the city, but instead I stayed in Rhode Island because I had met and formed a partnership with a local production company and began development on a collaboration with them.

While my partners in the production company are very talented and capable, the rest of the film community was… well, there’s room for improvement.

The Fundraising Nightmare

While raising money for our project, we had an extremely fruitful first few weeks, approaching several investors from our own resources, all of which have never invested in film and were excited about the project and opportunity. When we began approaching potential investors who have invested in film once or twice before, and eventually any potential investor after our initial first round of fundraising, we were met with slight animosity and quickly dismissed out of hand.

Why? Why was this the case? The answer, it turns out, is remarkably simple. A handful of local film makers have proven less than capable, made several films for large sums of money and were unable to pay their investors back, then, after two of three of these instances, announced even more projects, the dates for those projects, the actors “attached” to those projects, and ultimately failed in following thru on any of them, thus destroying the integrity of local film makers in Rhode Island.

The state loves when larger studio films come in from out of state, but is less than thrilled when local film makers attempt to make a film. And I don’t blame them at all, how could I when every project announced or attempted by this same group of people falls apart and the ones they did make failed to return their financiers investments? However, there are a handful of qualified and capable local film makers that suffer because of it.

One of these film makers recently made a film for 8 million dollars. I was fortunate enough to have a free pass to the premiere where I went to see it and I left with only one conclusion: “That was not an 8 Million dollar film.” Sure, that’s what they spent, but that’s not what it could have been made for. It could have been made for half of that, even less. Undoubtedly, a lot of the money went to attaining the big name actors they had in the film, and it did, but after getting my hands on a copy of their working budget to see where the money went, I was almost insulted. While there were both Union and Non-Union cast and crew members, most of the department heads were paid far above the standard for a film of that budget size and there were several line items in the budget that were far too high for what they were. And after looking at their crew list, a little more of why the budget was the way it was became more apparent, which I will get into a little later.

The decision to make the film at that price shows clear inconsideration for their investors. This group of film makers has made and sold several films that have attained national distribution over a decade ago, which, I would think, would give them the foresight to understand the scale, scope and expectations of their current projects. This project in question was not terrible, it was a good film, the acting was wonderful, cinematography was creative, but the story itself was far from unique and riveting, and the characters were less than interesting. Yes, I am aware that is simply MY opinion, and I stand by it.

The reason I state that, is that for the past year I have been totally immersed in market research, distribution statistics, buying costs and all kinds of numbers that make me feel less like a film maker and more like an analyst, but it is valuable information none the less. If they had been knowledgeable in the same material, they would have said to themselves: “hmmm, this budget is far too high, lets see where we can make it for less” I would imagine that had to have known they were not going to sell the film at a price to recoup its cost. If they didn’t, that means, to me, that they were not responsible film makers and hoped for the best (and we all hope for the best, but when handling invested monies, we have a responsibility to be realistic and knowledgeable) OR they took advantage of their investors and did not care that their investors would most likely not make their money back.

The Crew Pool

Now, why was the budget so high? I don’t have the whole answer to that question, but I have part of it. As previously mentioned, their department heads paid far above standard salary in comparison to projects of similar size and scope. But, also to note, all of the department heads were from out of state; out of New York and Los Angeles. The fact they’re from out of the area does not upset me, in fact, I completely understand it, there simply is not enough experienced crew in Rhode Island for every position on a film, although, that doesn’t HAVE to be the case.

Recently, the state put a cap on the Tax Credit available to projects shot in the state. While the amount of big budget projects flowing thru the state is not vast, it could very well be. Politics aside, by putting a cap on the Tax Credit, the state essentially said “we’re fine with the way things are”

Studios and Production Companies look for Tax Credit Incentives when wanting to shoot in another state, and if the 15 Million is already taken, they’re most likely not going to shoot in Rhode Island. Basic economics; more projects means more jobs, means a demand for crew, means more chances for growth and the ability to train crew.

I’ve had several conversations with people I’ve worked with in the past who are no longer open to the idea of bringing their projects here because of the Tax Credit Cap and the lack of properly trained crew. Sure, there are plenty of Union Crew around the area, and the Union is a wonderful thing, but, as any major film region will tell you, you can’t have a film composed entirely of Union crew, the regulations of so many crew combined will eventually hinder the project in time, which will eventually raise costs.

Where Do We Go From Here?

So how does Rhode Island regain its integrity within the larger film making community? First, I’d suggest dropping the cap, but that is not within the immediate reach of the local film community.

Aside from that, the first and most immediate thing I would do is to stop publically announcing projects and dates when your funding is not yet secured. This seems to be the constant and most common problem. Naturally when people constantly announce that they’re going to do things and never get to them, they’re going to lose credibility. Announcing that your developing a project is more than fine, announcing that you are going to do it, drawing attention and publicity to yourself and the project when, technically, there is no project, is a very bad idea. I know most people are excited to announce a project they’re proud of, tell the world they’re hoping to do it, but remember there’s a difference between HOPING to do it, and actually doing it.

Another suggestion would be for local film makers to utilize the vastly talented crew and acting pool that the state has. They’re not big pools, but they can be cultivated and nursed. Each of them is eager to be part of something, but they need to be given the chance. Utilize them as much as possible; otherwise they will leave the state for more regular work. I did.

The Rhode Island Film Community has a chance to become something great, to bring regular work here, one cable series and two films a year isn’t enough for someone to plant roots in the area, but if film makers put their heads together, put aside their egos and plans, they can come up with limitless po

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