In the latest installment of our Focus on Filmmakers series Veverka Bros. decides to see how the other half lives by speaking with independent narrative film prodigy Justin Eugene Evans about making Hollywood-style films on an Indie budget and the problems with the studio system.
Technological changes in cameras, post-production and distribution have really turned the film business on its head in the past decade and opened it up to truly independent cinema. However, few such films approach the level of quality you are able to achieve. Do you have a secret?
All I can say is this; I love making movies. I found my craft improved by being as honest about mywork and my soul as I possibly could. I made roughly 45 short films before ever making a feature film. With each short I was incredibly proud…for about three weeks. Then, I would sit down alone and watch my short with the specific intent to identify one consistent flaw hidden throughout the film. I’d write it down, study about that one thing and eliminate that from my next project. It never dawned on me to submit the very first short film I’d ever made to film festivals. I always felt my work had to be worthy of an audience. I feel the audience owes me nothing and that my work must meet their demands because they are my employer. I have found most independent filmmakers do not share my point of view. That’s their journey; I’m satisfied with my conclusions and my own path.
You recently released your first independent feature, A Lonely Place for Dying. It’s a cold war spy thriller with an excellent script, a great cast including Hollywood A-lister James Cromwell, and eye-catching special effects. How has the reception been?
A Lonely Place For Dying has been in 46 film festivals where it was nominated for 53 awards and won 29 including 18 as best picture. We sold out about half the screenings during our festival run. Attending festivals like Oaxaca were mind-blowing experiences; Oaxaca screened us as their opening night film and we had a packed house in the 400-seat Teatro Juarez. It was also particularly satisfying to see a dialogue-heavy film work so well for an audience that had to read 96 minutes of subtitles.
We’re now concluding a specialty theatrical run; we’re playing on 19 screens in five states throughout the US. This fall we’ll be on iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, Hulu Plus and many more outlets.
If we look at mainstream Hollywood mega-productions we see these huge budgets, and yet often only marginally better production values than what you were able to achieve on less than 1/100th of the budget. Where does all the money in Hollywood go?
This is a question worth being extremely frank about. Google the budget for Sahara. That 100 million dollar boondoggle will explain most of what’s wrong with studio filmmaking.
The history is so complicated that most people simply point a finger and say “Hollywood’s run by idiots.” It’s far more
complicated than that. The most important thing to remember is that Hollywood as an institution is a business of eight major companies with no long-term memory; how can you know your own history when the average tenure of a studio executive is 3-5 years? The tremendous turnover in executives means no one knows the past… except studio filmmakers and those of us crazy enough to study this for our entire lives.
Let’s use the average budget of a studio film from the 1970’s as a baseline. If budgets had matched inflation the average studio movie would cost around 56 million dollars today. They don’t; the average is closer to 100 million and tentpole movies are now 150-250 million dollars.
However, this doesn’t take into account the efficiency gained by digital technology. In my humble opinion, if digital technology were used as efficiently as possible the average studio budget would be about 25-35 million dollars. A good example of what can be achieved at that budget level is Looper.
But when studio executives don’t understand visual effects (which is the second biggest line item in a studio budget… possibly the largest line item with an effects extravaganza like The Avengers) they don’t understand how to budget for them. The result is a system that simultaneously exploits visual effects artists, puts smaller studios in a position to go bankrupt and overpays name-brand FX houses to ensure VFX are done on time… even when that means infinite iterations on shots that have nothing to do with the story, simply because the director likes to tinker.
Another reason for the enormous budgets is corruption; if previous studio regimes hadn’t have screwed stars out of their profit shares, A-list movie stars wouldn’t have demanded such large up front fees; the studios of today shepherd more risk because the studios of yesterday screwed stars like Sean Connery and Jack Nicholson.
Directors have become addicted to large crews, which dramatically inflate the entire production budget. Crews should be as lean as possible. However, saying that out loud can draw tremendous anger from IATSE.
Directors also measure their own worth in Hollywood by the size of their budget, not the return for investors… so Ridley Scott spends too much on a failed Robin Hood epic because James Cameron had the largest budget in history for Avatar. It doesn’t help that the James Cameron business model only works for James Cameron; his budgets often lead to budget-creep on other movies with lesser directors who do not have his technical acumen.
Lastly, and this is probably the hardest lesson for most filmmakers to understand… everything about our business is smoke and mirrors… including the budgets. Don’t believe anything you’ve ever heard about a budget unless you’ve seen the excel spreadsheet. And even then it will take a forensic accountant to fully explain the multi-headed hydra we call the modern multi-national corporation.
A film studio pays for advertising on a TV network wholly owned by its parent company which means 75% of the advertising expenses are legally kicked back up to the parent and then redistributed back to the studio. Nothing is as it seems.
Let’s talk about film funding. A lot of Indie filmmakers rely on non-profit models based on grants and Kickstarter, but your films are for-profit ventures. Why?
I enjoy working with professional investors. I think its less work than crowd funding. I also have Asperger’s and make a large number of social mistakes; places like Kickstarter require a different kind of social creature that I’ll never be. For me, I work best in a traditional, formal environment.
Do you think more filmmakers should consider for-profit models?
I’ve advocated that for years but much of what I’ve said has been misunderstood and so I don’t think I’m qualified to give any filmmaker advice. I’m just a guy making my own movies. If someone wants to learn from what I’m doing its all there on the screen.
Your productions up till now have occurred in the US. Are you considering any productions abroad?
Right now I’m wrapping up distribution of A Lonely Place For Dying. I’d love to shoot a movie abroad. I’ve worked in India, Mexico and China. There’s not a corner of the world I wouldn’t love to shoot a film in. I climbed a good chunk of Mt. Everest in 2004 and thought about shooting a movie in Tibet. Now that cameras are quite small that’s definitely possible.
Is there anything that I didn’t touch on that you would like to add?
Yes. Please watch A Lonely Place For Dying on iTunes, Amazon or Hulu this winter! Here is a link to our trailer.
Trained as an aerospace engineer, writer/director Jesse Veverka was a financial analyst on Wall Street before co-founding his own media production company, Veverka Bros. Productions LLC, with his brother Jeremy. He has worked and lived throughout Asia, including Japan, Korea and China, where he produced the award-winning documentary feature China: The Rebirth of an Empire. His articles have appeared in various publications including CNNGo, Japan’s Metropolis Magazine and China’s Global Times. The interplay between technology, globalization and authoritarianism is a common theme in his writing. He was born in Ithaca, NY.