American International Pictures was the exploitation leader in the 1950s and 1960s. Executives James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff spearheaded movies designed to be seen in drive-ins, appealing directly to teenagers and young people as their target market. AIP was unabashed in its attitude that marketing came first, product second. It didn’t develop movies, it developed campaigns. Nicholson would brain storm titles – Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow, The Fast and The Furious, The Beast with a Million Eyes – a concept poster would be drawn up and then a writer was given the assignment of turning it into a screenplay. Usually with an impossibly short deadline.
And that, my artist friends, is the cold hard truth of marketing creativity. You are selling the poster. The movie comes second. I am a filmmaker, not a graphic artist, so I always found that as discouraging as I’m sure many of you are feeling right now reading this. Nevertheless, it is so, and I have had to learn to accept that and stop kicking and bitching. It doesn’t mean we can’t do creative work and good work to back up that ad campaign. And if the movie is any good, it will be remembered long after the poster art is forgotten.
My first film as a director, Alien Force, was made for Wildcat Entertainment, and they followed a similar scheme to Nicholson and Arkoff’s. Once we had the title, producer Mark Gordon and myself went to the video store and looked at the boxes of a lot of action-oriented space movies and video games. Finally, we were inspired by the box art for Duke Nukem, the video game. We were inspired by the Duke’s pose and ripped it off – er, borrowed it – for the pose of our lead actor, Tyrone Wade, in a poster photo shoot. Next we rented an impressive alien mask from a costume store (this was before we knew what our alien would look like). Then we hired a graphic artist, Michael Feifer, to put it together into a pleasing poster.
I’d like to say the movie was a huge hit based on that cool poster, but still, I was pretty pleased with how it came out, and my premise still stands. If you want to sell your movie, spend some time on some kick ass ad art. The same principal holds true today. People won’t watch a streaming movie they have never heard of unless they are first inspired by that thumbnail ad art on their screen. Period.
The great director Frank Capra (MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) made personal movies within the Hollywood system, touting a philosophy he called “one man, one movie.”
The idea that a feature length movie could be a personal work of art was a radical one in 1930s America. However, Capra had the industry clout to do and be that after his IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT surprised the industry by winning the Oscar for best picture. But it was a rich man’s game.
Now, it’s pretty much the go-to attitude of micro-budget movie makers. Only you don’t have to be famous to practice the One Man (or Woman) One Movie philosophy anymore. Now we have the Internet: a world-wide forum to get our stuff seen.- How cool and convenient and amazing is that?
This blog began as a celebration of the earlier, more naive, less skilled and less jaded movies of the early days of digital filmmaking. They were creative days, when backyard auteurs could walk into their local Blockbuster or Hollywood Video store and see their completely personal micro-budget, backyard opus on the shelves, to be rented by movie-lovers looking for something new. What a thrill that was.
That little tickle to the ego is gone now. But the spirit of what those filmmaker did is alive and thriving. Consider them – people like Kevin Lindenmuth, Jeff Leroy, Ted Newsom, Ron Bonk, The Polonia Brothers, and, er, myself – as pioneers, paving the way for the auteurs making feature movies with whatever means they have today. – And getting them seen online.
Consider a couple examples that I know of just in my local area (Spokane, WA). Jesse James Hennessy, a director who specializes in gory horror, but often with a playful twist, is making a web series called MR. DARK. It is a dark drama about a detective with second sight. It is designed to be cut into a feature film when all is done. James Allen Teague is another filmmaker in the local area. He is making a feature-length thriller called MAGDALENE BLUE in fits and starts as locations are secured and cast and crew are reorganized every month or two. He will get it done. I know him.
The same thing is happening all over the country. And around the globe.
This blog is here to celebrate micro-budget filmmaking and filmmakers, be they from the VHS days, or doing it right now. Let’s keep the One Man (or Woman) One Movie spirit going. Let’s give Hollywood a reason to be scared.
If you make feature length movies without major sponsorship and with budgets under $50,000, I want to hear from you. I want to know what you’re working on. You can comment here or contact me at my retro-nineties VHS email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
NEXT: SELLING POSTERS: THE MOVIE IS A BONUS