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by Nigel M Smith
April 29, 2011 2:08 AM
19 Comments
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Edward Burns says: "I don’t think we’ll ever go back to theatrical." Here's why.

Ed Burns talking at the Apple Store in SoHo on Wednesday. [Photo by Nigel M. Smith]

During indieWIRE and Apple's Meet the Tribeca Filmmaker series, indie stalwart and Tribeca Film Festival vet Edward Burns spoke at the Apple store in Soho to discuss his Tribeca closing-night film "Newlyweds." With a shooting budget of $9,000, Burns latest venture marks his cheapest directorial outing to date. In the chat -- moderated by Matt Dentler, FilmBuff's head of content -- Burns doled out advice to a crowd packed with aspiring filmmakers and fans. Among the topics: the advent of social networking, the benefits of working with limited means, failing on your own terms and doing away with a theatrical run.

Below are some of Burns' tips taken from the event:

Buy a Canon 5D

Right before Thanksgiving, my DP had told me about this camera he had been playing with, the Canon 5D. It is the absolute game changer... Levels the field for any independent filmmakers. The camera looks like a still camera, so it worked with the pseudo-doc concept we were going for.

Limited Means = Easier on the Actors

On this film, some days we were just working with a one-man crew. What we did for sound, 10 out the 12 shooting days: We didn’t have a boom, we had a flash drive audio recorder than an actor would stick in their pocket. You just hit record.

At no point does the actor, out of the corner of their eye, get distracted by the light. Nor do they feel the boom above them. When you call cut, you don’t have the hair and makeup people coming in to prep them. None of that existed. So the actors really fall into character in a different way. What we found after the first day was that we were covering a very different kind of naturalistic performance.

I really didn’t need to direct the actors in this piece as I might have otherwise because we did so many takes. You’re not calling cut, you just take it from the beginning. What can happen on a traditional film set is the endless down time. We were shooting, some days, 14-15 pages a day, so there was no down time. It was like doing theater. That’s a very different sort of acting experience for film.

Limited Means = Less Pressure

It doesn’t cost you anything to shoot 19 takes on a flash drive. Especially when every location is for free. If you’re shooting on film, you do not want to burn extra film. The film is expensive and the process is expensive.

Ask Friends, Family and Fans for Help

I guess where I find stories, nine times out of 10, is from the people in my life. I just start to ask people for stories to play with. Now I’ve started to incorporate social media and Twitter. I’d tweet out, “I have this idea for a movie, what do you think? Got any more ideas?”

Back one day when I was going to to Hunter College studying film, I was walking down 4th street behind Spike Lee. I’m like 20 paces behind him and I just wanted to ask him some questions about filmmaking. But I didn’t have the balls. Once I started to use Twitter and people started to ask me those types of questions, I realized it was a form of communication that enables people to ask these questions.

The first thing I started to ask them about was the title of the movie. Since then, we’ve asked graphic designers to submit posters for the festival. Little things, but it’s kind of cool.

Fail On Your Own Terms

I was shocked. Even after the success of “The Brothers McMullen,” I’ve never had a moment where I could take my script, go out to LA and have a guy cut a check. I’m telling you, we had to scrape together every cent we ever got. It’s painful. Anyone that cuts you a significant check – they now are your partner. Even if it doesn’t, they believe that it entitles them to real participation and collaboration. They’ll change the title on you, ask you to rewrite certain scenes. I got to a point, where I was like: "Brothers McMullen" is probably my most acclaimed movie, my most financially successful, and it’s one of the films I made with only the participation of my collaborators, my friends, my actors and my crew.

I know how to make a movie for $25,000. If I do that, no one can tell me what to do. If I’m going to fail, I want to fail on my own terms. If the movie tanks and gets shitty reviews, at least it’s on me. If you want to be an artist, that is the decision you have to make.

Think Outside the Box

Even a respectable indie is going to have to spend a couple of million dollars in print and advertising. When you look at the box office returns of the majority of indie titles, they’re doing under a million dollars. For every “Win Win,” there are hundreds of titles. There are movies making $8,000 in their theatrical run. They know this is what they call a "loss leader" -- using the theatrical as the promotional aspect to drive DVD/VOD sales. “Nice Guy Johnny,” we made for $25,000. Why would we gamble on theatrical, potentially be in the hole for $2 million, rather than just go on iTunes? For me, it’s about the ability to make another one. I love this too much to spend three years hat in hand with my script only to be told by some schmuck with an MBA what doesn’t work with my script.

You won’t have that pop-culture moment. You won’t enter that public consciousness moment where everyone is talking about the film. But those are not the films I make. That was never part of the game plan. For me, if it’s about a fiscally responsible game plan, then I don’t think we’ll ever go back to theatrical.

19 Comments

  • Julian Grant | May 2, 2011 12:15 PMReply

    Ed Burns is doing the same thing I am. Making films with
    His own money and working on stories that matter to him.
    Filmmaking and moviemaking are such different crafts. One is
    Driven by passion. The other by PA$$ion. Ultimately, those who
    Have stories to tell will get them done. You give up the
    Meddling, the cheese trays and the headaches when you
    Make it happen yourself. Bravo, Ed.

  • Mike Kallio | May 2, 2011 9:54 AMReply

    OH... and as FAR as MICRO BUDGET filmmaking... I'm ready to do a personal film too,.. and I have friends that ARE TV and Movie actors but GUESS WHAT,.. Evil Dead was FILLED with no name actors AS WAS Brothers McMullen... it is about story, and making a good movie... thats IT.

  • Mike Kallio | May 2, 2011 9:51 AMReply

    Bruce Campbell of Evil Dead and Bubba Ho Tep fame has been doing ALL this independent Self Distribution stuff for years AND, so have people like Roger Corman, etc. It IS NOT NEW. It's ALL about making some noise about your film. It is NOW about your audience and slow roll out... get people interested and make an audience... which is HARD as FUCK but, as a filmmaker, you gotta go with the flow, follow your heart, artistic vision and make it happen. You will find a way to create an audience.... good luck to those who still believe in the HEART of INDIE cinema... remember, Easy Rider was an indie movie, so was Star Wars, as was ET... they ALL had SOMEONE backing them up... May it be a studio or an indie studio OR private investors,.. when it's ALL said and done... a studio or distributor MADE those movies,.. JUST LIKE Paranormal Activity... the internet and festival buzz was good BUT, it had Paramount watching and backing and Screamfest, a horror movie festival behind it. Think about it.... and good luck, as an indie filmmaker, it's had but, HEY, WHY not.

  • Jordan | May 1, 2011 10:34 AMReply

    My latest film "I Am Comic" was made with a camcorder, gracious comedians and support of my crew that makes commercials with me for a living at www.superlounge.tv - if it's of interest to you, rent it, buy it, stream it, iTunes it, Netlfix it, Xbox it, even loan YOUR dvd to a friend.

    JUST DON'T STEAL IT.

    www.iamcomicmovie.com

    Piracy is killing indies.

    PS - the 5D is not the game changer... it's the talented Storytellers using an accessible tool to tell their story. Ed Burns, give yourself the credit over the camera.

    Fondly,

    Jordan Brady
    Director, "I AM COMIC"

  • james | May 1, 2011 1:29 AMReply

    Being an artist is a stance, not a right. What's this nonsense about paying the landlord? This supposed "problem of distribution" is based on the fallacy that a film "industry" is a given. Seems more like an historical mistake we're now coming to terms with. Ed Burns is essentially a hustler like anybody whose desire to make movies exceeds the reality of sustainability. You don't wanna hustle, get outta the game.

  • Matthew Galvin | April 30, 2011 11:22 AMReply

    I'm tired of these fantasy film numbers.
    What was payroll, marketing, and the total amount of time invested? How do you even get locations for that little, not to mention 2-3 crew people. What about transportation costs, with gas at $4/gal.
    Give us some real numbers, or keep going with your Apple-sponsored marketing BS.

  • Reel Indie | April 30, 2011 7:36 AMReply

    I'm with comment #4 and looking forward to Mr Burns himself answering comment #6. Great point #8 but regardless if it's in-kind, limited art house releases or paying your crew, the numbers game is just as important if not more particularly if you are a low/no budget filmmaker. Therefore, show me them numbers baby!What's the breakdown.

    Oh and not for nothing, while Mr Burns is calling in favors to his Hollywood editing friends, some of the "real" indie filmmakers are doing the same. The only problem is, the "real" indie filmmakers are asking "real" freelance editors with no health insurance to cut their films in hopes that they get picked up. Sorry dude but that is NOT cool when you have your landlord knocking at your door or better yet, kids to feed. I'm just saying....

  • sara | April 30, 2011 7:29 AMReply

    Thank you, Doug, for saying EXACTLY what I was thinking.

  • Doug Block | April 30, 2011 7:03 AMReply

    Geez, everyone, lighten up. Ed Burns isn't claiming to be a visionary or to be breaking new ground in distribution. He made a film inexpensively and now he's using his name and track record to promote it via an Apple talk. How else will people read about it and know where to find it, by reading reviews in the NY Times? Nope. If you've ever heard him speak, you'd know he's about as modest and self-deprecating as any filmmaker out there. He's basically just sharing some tips.

    Yes, it helps to be well-known and have some high-powered friends when working this way. It's not a model for sustaining a career in filmmaking. On the other hand, nothing is a model for sustaining a career in filmmaking other than making a breakout hit. And as he says, he did it once and had problems making every other film since.

  • Brooks Elms | April 30, 2011 3:34 AMReply

    @Anton. The reason income numbers matter is because it would be nice for most filmmakers to not have a day job. Can they make a great little 10K film and generate 60K within one year?

    If Ed Burns is only generating 10K himself, than unknown filmmakers should know that before they spend the next year of their lives on a "hobby" not a "business."

  • "Four Corners Road" | April 29, 2011 10:21 AMReply

    At the Apple event the other day, I was able to thank Ed for giving me a chance to chase my dreams as a filmmaker. Not only did I fall in love with the story of "The Brothers McMullen," but I also fell in love with the story of how it was made. Ed's continued work with low-budget indie filmmaking has inspired me to make my film, "Four Corners Road." It's in post-production now and was highly influenced by Ed's films. Meeting him the other day was so inspirational and a moment I will never forget. How often can we actually say that we have met the person who has had the largest influence in our lives when it comes to following our bliss? Like I said the other day, were it not for Ed Burns, my baby would have never been made and I am eternally grateful to him for that! Ed- if you're reading this... once again, THANK YOU! You mentioned I could send our info your way, so for the moment you can see the movie's fan page on facebook here!

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/FOUR-CORNERS-ROAD-A-Gregory-Van-Voorhis-Film/113289948691601

    Gregory Van Voorhis

  • Anton H. Gill | April 29, 2011 10:19 AMReply

    @Brooks: From what I've read elsewhere, he's not spending money on advertising when he releases on Itunes or via limited art house theatrical releases. If this is in fact the case, needing revenue data would be a moot point if 1) he's making the films he wants to make in the way he wants to make them and 2) the budget is so low. Anything he earns is gravy once he surpasses the budget. Then he turns around and pays his peeps. That's my understanding of how it's going down. Could be wrong.

  • Grumpy | April 29, 2011 7:18 AMReply

    Snore. Indie filmmakers from the '90's telling us what the future is. Yawn.

  • Brooks Elms | April 29, 2011 6:59 AMReply

    I love what he's doing, and now let's see some real numbers. How much revenue did he gross? And net? How much marketing money did he spend? The production budget number is kinda meaningless without the other numbers for context.

    If anybody knows these other numbers please post them here, or e-mail me directly Brooks (at) BrooksElms.com . Would be GREATLY appreciated.

  • Von | April 29, 2011 6:44 AMReply

    The entire game should be this way.

  • skeptic | April 29, 2011 4:32 AMReply

    This isn't self distribution and independence.

    It's being part of the Cinetic studio.

    Cinetic isn't promoting independence. They're building their own studio, with their own studio directors:
    - Vachon
    - Smith
    - Burns

    etc.

    Call it what it is, please.

  • Angelon Ent | April 29, 2011 3:57 AMReply

    Like Kevin Smith and his move to self distribution and independence, this is a perspective that most film makers will never have; being inside and outside of the system. I actually find it to be inspiring.

  • SoundsandLight | April 29, 2011 3:47 AMReply

    Nothing new or out of the box in anything he is saying.

  • jimbo | April 29, 2011 2:23 AMReply

    This is a very US-centric look at film making that relies on private equity who pretend to be creative producers.