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AFM Adventures: Day 3

William Martell continues his (exhaustive) adventures at the 2010 American Film Market.

Script contributor, William Martell, chronicles his experiences at the 2010 American Film Market.

So, today I drank plenty of fluids, and felt much better... but I am still exhausted. And my feet and legs hurt. Climbing stairs uses some different muscles than riding a bike and my feet are not used to all of this walking and standing - I sit on my butt for a living. Day 3 is Friday, and AFM should be much more crowded... except it’s not. The lobby is practically empty again. Where is everyone?

It’s so slow that I could actually take the elevator instead of climbing the stairs, but I’m so used to popping into the stairwells that I forget there are elevators. In the past, I’ve tried to figure out the secret message of the AFM posters - one year every poster had a helicopter in it, one year it seemed like every poster had a puppy in it (even the action movies) - but this year there are very few visible posters in the hallways. Two things that I do notice are...

Not every star is only doing dramas, many folks who often headline movies end up in films at AFM. You may see these films on cable or at a video store and think you somehow missed that movie when it played in cinemas... but it never played in cinemas and was never intended to play in cinemas. Though Kevin Sorbo is a TV name, he seems to be in at least 20% of all films offered at AFM. Val Kilmer is in another 20% of all films at AFM. Ving Rhames is in about 10% of the films - and I think that’s a good thing (he should be starring in movies). Nick Nolte is in a few movies, as are Willem Dafoe and Maria Bello and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Heather Graham. Halle Berry stars in a film titled Frankie and Alice - let’s see if that one goes to cinemas or not. Matt Dillon and Michelle Monaghan star in a film produced by the DVD distrib that now handles my Crash Dive and Steel Sharks movies. Ed Harris is in a few movies as is Josh Hartnett.

These actors are either people who were stars a few years ago or character actors... or women. It’s strange that an actress like Maria Bello isn’t starring in studio films - but most studio films seem geared to 13-year-old boys. (Hmm, when I was a 13-year-old boy, I would have liked to see Maria Bello star in a movie, but maybe that’s just me). Unless it’s a rom-com, actresses end up playing the wife and girlfriend roles in studio films, so if Maria Bello gets to kick some ass in Carjacked even though it may end up on cable or DVD or maybe a very limited theatrical, she’s going to take the role.

The actors who have embraced genre films at lower budgets get to play some fun roles in some cool movies. Liam Neeson has a whole new career as a badass in movies made outside the studios (Taken was a French film, Three Days from Now was made by Lionsgate, and Unknown is from Canal Plus). As studios aim for sure things, the indies still like to cast interesting actors even if it is in a genre film. You just know Peter Dinklage is eventually going to star in a violent revenge film - and I’ll be first in line to see it! With fewer roles and less money for supporting roles, indie genre films are a great way to stay in front of the camera and have some fun.

The other thing I noticed was the amount of purposely schlocky movies - like those SyFy Channel crazy creature features. A few years ago Asylum Pictures was a joke with all of their cheapo knock off movies, and 20th Century Fox even sued them for copyright infringement. But something happened... people began watching their cruddy SyFy Channel movies as goofy fun films and seeing their limitations as assets. Just as you might watch Plan 9 from Outer Space and have a good time, you can watch these Asylum mockbusters for fun... or now their monster-mashup movies like Mega Python Vs. Gatoroid (which sounds too much like a snake in search of a sports drink with electrolytes). And other companies are following suit with their own silly films. I have no idea how long this trend can last, but right now it’s hot.

One of the strange things I noticed at one of the places upstairs were two different movies in different genres with the exact same cast, and seemingly the exact same basic location. At first I thought this might be a company trying to sell the same movie twice (not everyone at AFM is honest... actually, few are) but then I realized this was a cost-cutting method by the producer. They hired the same cast - including stars - and crew and shot in the same locations for two different movies. They could light one room, shoot all of the scenes for both films at the same time, and not waste any time taking down and setting up lights. When the middle dropped out of the business leaving only low budget and big budget films, the medium budget people had to become creative.

In the lobby I bumped into a director I know, Rolfe, who was working on the film from hell... actually, the films from hell. He just shot seven different movies for the same company at the same time. The scripts were written to use the same sets and same actors, so that if four of the films had scenes at a police station they could all be shot at the same time. Different actors in the ensemble might play the detective in different films, and other actors might be suspects in different films, but he had to shoot all of the police station scenes at once... and all of the other locations that each of the films shared at the same time. An actor playing the cop in one film might play the killer in another and a witness in a third film and the District Attorney in a fourth. That actor would be doing costume changes all day, and doing lines from different films all day. I think the idea behind this was for the company to make a whole slate of films at the same time, and be able to sell all of the films now, instead of making seven individual films and having each be made before they can sell it. Whatever the reason, Rolfe had to write over 600 pages of screenplays that all used the same locations - and that’s not an easy task. These are the things that we might have to do in the indie world as screenwriters - that kind of assignment may become more common.

After talking to Rolfe and some other folks, and realizing there was no free rum at the Costa Rica Film Commission booth, I decided to grab some dinner to wait out the traffic and call it a night. I could use some sleep, I was exhausted.

One of the reasons why I am behind on these blog entries is that I intended on catching up on Friday night (by skipping a party and writing while having dinner.) But this was not to be! Instead, I bumped into a friend from online and we had dinner together... and no writing was accomplished. But we talked about the logistics of writing a low budget screenplay. About 15 years ago in Script I did a series of articles about writing for budget, and this guy had kept all of those articles. Now he works behind the scenes in production and sees how important all of those things are.

Most people have no idea how to write for budget. They know that limiting locations is important, so we get all of these stunt films like Buried where it is obvious that the film takes place in only a handful of locations. Though films like that are interesting, the real skill is in writing a film with limited locations that does not seem like it has limited locations. A script that seems like a regular film, but has only a handful of locations and maybe a dozen speaking roles. No one watching Steel Sharks would ever think that there are only eight locations in that film - it’s a big submarine warfare film! While watching Air Force One again for an upcoming article for Script, I noticed that it has very few locations and a limited cast. Not many crowd scenes in that plane! And when that film isn’t in one of a handful of locations in the plane, it is in the situation room. When you watched that film, did it seem like something that could have been made on a low budget? It could have!

Limiting locations and cast are the most important elements in keeping the budget down. On Steel Sharks our submarine battles were done with models. When Air Force One crashes into the ocean, that’s CGI. As long as you keep the people and FX separate that isn’t a major budget issue. People and FX in the same shot costs money. I don’t know if studio development people understand this, or even if many of the readers and development people for producers know this. On one of my films, the same script was submitted to both Head of Development and Head of Production at the same company... and Development passed on it and Production bought it because it fit their genre requirements and could be made on a budget. The purpose of a screenplay is to be made into a movie, and anything that gets in the way of that script becoming a movie gets in the way of that script becoming a movie. You want to make it easy for them to film your screenplay.

Though the original plan was to go home early and try to get some sleep on Friday, because Saturday is a big day at market and Saturday night I was invited to a big party, our conversation came to an end when the restaurant closed and kicked us out. This ended up being the latest I was at an AFM-related thing. I went home, went to sleep, knowing that the alarm would ring in a few hours for Day 4...