The Low Down On Metro's Lowbrow
With the ice and snow of winter wrapped around our collective conscious, it's easy to forget those heady days of spring and summer when in the wake of Governor Granholm signing into law generous tax breaks for filmmakers working in Michigan, the Metro area seemed verily overrun by Hollywood giltterati. For many, that infusion of energy was our first glimpse of the magic of filmmaking. But long before the trailers and craft service tables rolled into Ferndale, Ann Arbor and other areas of the state, our fair mitten was home to a heady, strange and homegrown celluloid scene populated by the undead, slashers in the woods, topless sweethearts and buckets of tinted-Karo blood.
There's a homegrown industry of indie film professionals here the equivalent of our rollicking and scrappy indie music scene creating, producing and distributing cheap celluloid thrills. Call them lowbrow, cult flicks, "genre" pictures or budget indies there's no shortage of pigeonholes. They're the kind of movies folks used to enjoy at the drive-in. Movies that, at the dawn of the VHS age, got traded via a network of underground, enthusiastic fans via zines like Fangoria. And now they're the kind of movies that get made and distributed with passion and storytelling as the driving principles and a real DIY creativity and energy as the engine.
Indeed, according to local video Mecca Thomas Video
proprieter Jim Olenski "If I had to pick one genre that's right up on top for our store, it's cult films and horror films are a real big part of that."
He should know, a couple of his former employees have gone on to successful careers in LA and do well enough to come back for a few months at a time to shoot films they want with locals as cast and crew. Also, Thomas features a local films section called Michigan Connection where folks who've made or helped movies locally find shelf space.
If Michigan's heritage in the lowbrow dates back to to a single "big bang," it's the prolific writer-director-producer Sam Raimi's 1981 undead opus Evil Dead
. His legacy is carried on specifically in three area companies that share and are still inspired by Raimi and his 1980s peers' example of bridging the homegrown with Hollywood. More Than Bare Bones
Perhaps closest to Raimi's approach is Milford-based Skeleton Factory
. Owned and operated as a labor of love by the husband-and-wife director/writer/producer team Todd and Tomasita (Tommy) Brunswick, Skeleton Factory sprung to life with a life-changing passage in a book Todd gave his wife in 2000 that told the tale of director Sean Cunningham sel
ling the original Friday the 13th
with only a poster and a seat at a pitch meeting.
"it was just a logo nothing else!" marvels Tommy. "He was in a meeting and he walked out with a check. They made up the movie after that. We thought 'Wow we could do that!'"
And so they did, creating Crossbow5 which later became The Skeleton Factory. They went into a pitch meeting with financiers in the same manner with 5 or 6 titles and the one the moneymen bit on was Biker Zombies from Detroit
. The film cost them $16,000 to make and they say it generated nearly $250,000 in sales. Not a bad way to start.
The pair always loved horror movies, so it was a natural extension to a working business: "We found that horror was the best way to sell movies besides porn," elaborates Tommy. "Also, horror translates all over the world. What scares us here, scares everyone. That doesn't necessarily translate to a drama or a comedy."
"and," adds Todd, "there's a fan base for whatever size you want to be. The only real barriers to entry are how many kills you have, how many boobs you have," he chuckles.
From the get-go, their idea was not simply to be auteurs, but to master the business side. To that end, they threw themselves whole-hog into all aspects of creating a "slate" film company (that is, a company that has more than one film in the works at a time to help amortize losses and gains from any one film). They travel to L.A. frequently to meet with interested parties and attend networking events and conventions.
"We're trying to be the producers, to develop the content," says Tommy. "We're not there as hired guns. We're doing the business part of it."
And, by all accounts, it's worked. By keeping realistic financial expectations for each film and by working the phones diligently, they've managed to turn the dream of two former auto company production vets into a real venture. But it's not without its challenges. To get their films distributed, they have had to find a handful of trusted producer's representatives to sell their finished product through big name distributors like Lions' Gate. And it's a trial by fire. They cite one example where they weren't aware of some of the financial back-end deals on a film that they sold granted for a profit on their initial investment that generated nearly $2 million for the company that distributed it. But now they have a solid track record and can keep the ball rolling.
Their locally-based marketing efforts have paid off dividends, too. They started the successful annual Motor City Nightmares
convention that brings together area filmmakers from the area to celebrate all things grindhouse costume contests, pin-up girls. "We might do a 'Hot Corpse' contest at the next one," laughs Tommy. "We want hot girls in dead makeup."
"We wanted a place for everyone to come together with no competition, just to get to know who everyone is."
And they make events out of the local premieres of their movies, too, selling out the Emagine Theatre
in Novi and letting locals mingle with the productions crew and cast.
Their latest venture, Atomic Devil films seeks to further broaden their reach through digital distibution of syndicated content to the web and mobile devices.
But all the extra effort making movies locally is worth it for this local duo who value the time spent with friends, family and community. Says Todd: "The sickness of making movies is you spend six months looking for the right script, six weeks raising money. Then you're dealing with actors and stuff and you just want to make a damn movie. But then you get that 38 seconds of great stuff on-film and that other 98% just washes away." Detecting the Connections
Before the Internet enabled every would-be horror flick uber-fan to hook up with a network of like-minded gore enthusiasts, it took some work and commitment answering ads in the back of mags like Fangoria
, trading tape collections via the mail and gasp! taking trips to visit with new friends in nearby states. Such was the case in the 1980s when Ann Arbor flick fan Jerry Chandler connected with a passionate fellow fan from Illinois named Donald May Jr.
The two hit it off immediately and began trading tapes and films, with May eventually finding his niche creating special treatment and collector's editions of classic horror films. In fact, May was one of the men behind Elite Entertainment's
25th Anniversary Edition of George Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead
. May eventually left Elite and formed a partnership with his old pal Chandler, working out of Chandler's place in Ann Arbor.
This was 12 years and hundreds of titles ago. The company they formed, Synapse
, is now one of a few bona fide specialists that releases and distributes horror films from the 60s-80s, psychedelic soft core, Japanese horror and sci-fi imports that would never have seen the light of day domestically and other oft-forgotten corners of the independent film world.
"The original idea was to do indie films," says Chandler. "But that lasted about five minutes. People don't buy indie films as a rule. So we kind of changed our focus to 60s, 70s and 80s horror films." As a natural outgrowth of their film fandom, they've since branched out to present a broader spectrum of films with a focus on quality over quantity.
"We don't call ourselves a distributor. We consider ourselves a little different. We treat movies differently. Just to call us a distributor really doesn't do us justice," says Chandler. "We put a lot more love into the films."
This means meticulously supervising the digital transfer of films and creating really special packaging that appeals to the collectors who love the genres and films they represent.
"Don is s transfer expert," says Chandler, "Dimension Films just hired him to supervise a special transfer of Night of the Living Dead
. Arguably, few get the acclaim that we get for quality purposes."
Synapse is realistic about its place in the market. Chandler and May know they're not gunning for world domination. But there are fans who create a demand for the goods they do release. And after their dalliance with indie films, "these days we've set the bar even higher."
They've recently landed two films that will probably see the light of day under the Synapse moniker in 2009. Chandler doesn't want to jinx anything, but "they're both so sick, so twisted and so good that we couldn't not do them," despite the risk of not making the money back.
"Even when times are good, there's only like 3500 hardcore collectors in the US. Now that times are shitty, those collectors are unemployed," he says. "This is the most brutal time I've ever seen."
Between bittorrent and people burning stuff, there's just not enough collectors out there. And people who want the beautiful covers and the extras and the quality aren't buying as much," says Chandler. "If it weren't for the strength of our catalog, I don't know what we'd do."
But there are other explorations on the business front. They had a fitful (though, ironically, successful) start in the digital distribution with Netflix
' digital downloads with their soft core titles Fantasm
and Fantasm Comes Again
. But Netflix which started as an indie-friendly entity, moved to compete with Blockbuster and dropped the titles even though they were successful. Synapse is still trying to crack the code on digital distribution as an adjunct to its bread-and-butter DVD work.
"We're distributed by Ryko Distribution
, which is part of Warner. It tooks us a long time to find a good partner like Ryko. Now we have to find someone similarly reputable for Digital download and Video on Demand."
Despite the challenges, Chandler says starting Synapse "was the best decision I've ever made." They've moved into their own offices recently and "I get to work with my best friend every day." DIY Wily
Ypsilanti-based Evil Genius Entertainment
represents a truly DIY approach to horror filmmaking. The collective of horror fans throws their all into one movie at a time, enlisting friends, family and favors to get the best quality they can. The principles behind Evil Genius came together working on other peoples' films and at Eastern Michigan University. They include producers John Vincent,Robert Felts and Brad Torreano as well as CG specialist Matt Cash and FX/makeup man Eric Jaan.
Their first film, 1997's Deadeye
was shot for $40,000. But that number might be deceiving as Felts says they specifically spend their self-financed budget on gear and other needs that they can use on more than one film as opposed to renting it.
Their second film was 2002's Witchhunter
, starred Gunnar Hansen (the original Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and scream queen Glori-Anne Gilbert. they sold it to Spectrum Entertainment. Unfortunately, Spectrum went out of business about a month afterward and they struggled to get the rights to the film back. In the meantime, they worked up their second feature an end-of-the-world zombie picture called Living Dead World
. They're now hard at work on their fourth feature, The 6th Extinction
They came together naturally from a bond formed around a mutual love of horror flicks, sats Felts.
"Who doesn't like being scared? It's a thrill and there's no real danger for to you. It costs less than an action/sci-fi movie and you're relying less on the skill of actors than on drama," he says. "Although I must say that the acting in our movies has been uniformly excellent."
"The driving idea behind Evil Genius Entertainment," says Felts "is simply to make the kind of movies that we, as fans of the cinema, would like to see. We use Hollywood techniques, but on a no-budget scale."
"We take the story seriously--no winking at the camera," he says of their hallmark tone.
"If there is comedy, or comedic moments, in our movies, it is because the comedy has risen from the story or from the characters, not because we're letting the audience know that we know we have no budget."
Felts says the cast and crew for Evil Genius films works solely on deferred pay when the movie starts making money, they get paid and "mostly [because] they like to hang out 'cause we're cool guys."
They have simple ideals that they share with the like-minded folks behind Skeleton Factory.
"Ideally, we'd like to become a mini-studio, churning out low-budget popcorn movies, and hopefully making enough money to live on," says Felts.
"Our perfect situation would be to always have a movie in pre-production, production, and post-production, with enough name recognition that someone would want to watch our movies because it's made by Evil Genius."
So, while we're celebrating the success of Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino
and Sigourney Weaver's foray in Lifetime with Prayer's for Bobby
, let's make sure to take a step back and realize that somewhere out there in the woods, there's another side to the film industry lurking, waiting to spring its next batch of shocks and surprises on the public.
Chris Handyside is a Detroit-based writer whose work has appeared in Model D and The Metro Times. His last piece was Metro Detroit Spins.