Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Release forms and the Skunk-Ape

Most filmmakers know that anytime you show someone prominently on screen you need permission to use their image. This permission is granted in a brief statement known as a "release" and is usually included as part of an actor's employment agreement. If you're project is a documentary or other non-fiction work that is relying on interviews and b-roll footage rather than hired actors, a single page release form may be used instead.

I am constantly surprised at how many filmmakers fail to have their subjects fill out release forms before filming begins figuring they'll just "get it later." In many cases, the release forms are eventually acquired and the production continues to it's successful end. No harm, no foul. But every once in a while, this seemingly minor element can bring a production to a sudden screaming halt.

Several years ago a fellow filmmaker and good friend, who I'll call "Bob" to protect his identity, began work on a documentary film investigating reported sightings of the legendary "Skunk-ape", a South Florida Everglades version of Big Foot. The central figure in Bob's documentary was a extremely colorful self-proclaimed Skunk-ape expert that dedicated his life to tracking and validating the Skunk Ape's existence. Bob and I call him "Skunk-ape guy."

Bob arranged for Skunk-ape guy to spend a few days with his film crew hunting the Skunk Ape and conducting interviews at his remote cabin in the Everglades. During that time, Bob recorded hours of interviews with the him and alleged eyewitnesses, countless reels of b-roll footage of the everglades, and even filmed a series of "re-enactments" complete with an actor in a Skunk-ape costume.

When the project was nearly complete, Bob was gracious enough to let me sit with him in the editing room to preview a rough cut of the film. My immediate impression was that it was a cross between a Discovery Channel documentary, and something you might see on Comedy Central. It was pure video gold.

When I asked Bob if he had all of his paperwork in order, he replied that he still hadn't gotten around to getting a release form from Skunk-ape guy. According to Bob, he was a rather eccentric man, and the last few times he had tried to call, he had been assaulted with an alternating barrage of excitement about completing the film, and threats of bodily harm.

"Threats?", I asked him not quite following.

"Yea." he said. "He threatened to disembowel me or something like that the last time we spoke. The guys a bit insane."

I reminded Bob that unless Skunk-ape guy signed a release form, his documentary was destined to become a very expensive paperweight.

"Let's give him a call right now," I suggested.

Bob shrugged, pulled out his cell phone and dialed the number.

After a few moments, Skunk-ape guy answered the phone and Bob introduced himself. Almost immediately, the screaming began and a string of obscenities and various death threats emanated from the other end of the line. A moment later the conversation ended as Skunk-ape guy slammed down his receiver.

Now, Bob is the kind of guy that doesn't get intimidated very easily and tends to find humor in situations like these, which in and of itself is a bit disturbing, and he burst out laughing.

"See. I told you!" he howled as tears ran down his face.

"That's messed up" I replied.

Bob regained his composure. "Watch, in about another minute he'll call back like nothing ever happened." Sure enough, before he even finished his sentence, Bob's cell phone rang and he held it up to show me who was calling. "Like clockwork" is all he said.

Bob answered his phone and held it way from his ear so I could hear the conversation better this time. From the other end came the voice of Skunk-ape guy, calm and composed as if nothing had ever happened.

"Hey Bob! It's good to hear from you! Hey man, sorry about that. I'm just a little stressed over here."

I tried to silently coach Bob on how to convince Skunk-ape guy to sign the release forms.

We thought it was going well, when suddenly Skunk-ape guy declared that he had been giving this whole "film thing" a lot of thought and decided he wanted something more out of the deal. He was standing firm and wouldn't sign the forms until his "demands" were met.

Bracing himself for the worst, Bob gathered his courage and asked what Skunk-ape guy's demands were. After a brief pause, Bob put his hand over the phone and mouthed the words "This guy is absolutely insane."

Rather than reiterating Skunk-ape guy's words in graphic detail, let's just say that a single man in his mid 40's who spends his life skulking around the Everglades in search of a fictitious man-ape doesn't have much time to build relationships with members of the opposite sex. Enough said.

Very calmly, Bob attempted to explain to Skunk-ape guy that he was a filmmaker and not the owner of an escort service, but it was falling on deaf ears. Eventually he gave up and ended the call. Bob put his phone away, looked up at me and just shrugged. To this day, he still hasn't completed his documentary or collected a release from Skunk-ape guy.

Now obviously the Skunk Ape story, as it's come to be known, is not your typical scenario. But the point of the story is still valid: If Bob had collected a release form before filming while Skunk-ape guy was excitement about the project, he would have been able to finish his documentary, release it, and possibly even win a few awards to boot. Instead, it just sits on a shelf and serves as a reminder of what can happen if you don't have all your paperwork in order before you start filming.

The moral of the story: Get ALL your paperwork in order BEFORE you start filming.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Touring Isn't Just for Bands Anymore

A special thanks to Lori Starfelt who provided the link to a very interesting article about some independent filmmakers that are touring with their film much in the way bands have toured for years.

Theatrical Distribution: 35mm Print or Digital Cinema?

If you happen to be one of the filmmakers lucky enough to find a way of self-distributing your film theatrically, the first task you'll need to address is the method of delivery.  How will you get your film to the theater so it can be projected on the screen.

For many years, filmmakers only had one option: strike a 35mm film print.  This involved having your audio converted to an optical track, then syncing it with the original film negative and striking a positive screening print.  The cost for these services vary depending on who you speak with, but it's safe to say that in the end, you can expect to pay between $1,100.00 and $2,100.00 per print.

If your film was actually shot and edited on film, and you aren't planning on doing a digital intermediary (which is essentially a fancy way to say that the film was scanned into a computer for editing and color correction), then creating 35mm prints may still be the most cost effective way to deliver your project to theaters.

But what if you elected to perform a digital intermediary, or your project originated in another format such as HD, HDV, or DV?

If you still want to deliver your project on film, the only option is to output your digital or video master using a laser or CRT film recorder.  Currently, this will cost you anywhere from $400.00 to $450.00 per minute —  an average 90 minute film will cost upwards of $40,000.00.  In some cases, the price may include lab fees to develop the negative and strike one "answer print" (a.k.a "work print" or "screening print" depending on what it's being used for... they are essentially all the same thing) but every facility has their own policy.

At this point, you will have a negative, but you will still need an optical sound track (extra fee), and if you want your film projected in Dolby Surround, you will have to have Dolby Labs create the optical track... a cost of around $5,000.00 including licensing fees for use of dolby technology.

If it sounds like it's starting to get a bit expensive... it is.  We still have to add in the cost of each print.  If you intend to project your movie on ten screens, expect to add another $15,000 to your budget.  Here's what the costs look like to get your digital project into theaters:

Output to Film $40,000.00
Dolby Optical Track $   5,000.00
Strike 10 Prints $20,000.00

Total Cost: $65,000.00

Obviously, this is not practical for most small independent films, unless you happen to be one of the lucky few with a decent budget who planned for this expense during pre-production.  Fortunately for the rest of us, developments in digital technology are promising to open theatrical doors to independent filmmakers by way of digital cinema.

If you're not that familiar with digital cinema, not to worry.  It's actually quite easy to understand.  In simple terms, it's like e-mailing a Quicktime movie to a friend, then streaming it to a projector from your friends computer.  Sounds simple right?  Well, it is... sort of.

What actually gets sent is called a Digital Cinema Package or DCP — a set of encrypted files containing of all of your audio tracks (one per channel) and a JPEG-2000 encoded video track.  The DCP can be sent to theaters on a set of DVD's or transferred electronically, depending on who is originating the DCP and the capability of the theater.

Until recently, the costs for creating a DCP was not very different from the cost of printing a digital master to film... around $400 per minute.  The conversion required a series of rather expensive hardware components that would encode the files and save them in a format defined by the Digital Cinema Initiative, a standards committee of various studios and manufacturers.  A DCI compliant DCP can be played on any DCI compliant system worldwide.

One early pioneer and manufacturer of encoding equipment is a company called QuVIS, which stands for Quality Visual Information Systems.  QuVIS has been on the forefront of the digital cinema revolution since 1999 when the company teamed up with Disney for the first commercial digital cinema release with the box office smash, "Toy Story 2."  The initial release was played back from QuVIS' first generation server.  Since then, over a dozen Disney releases have been played back using QuVis equipment, including "Cars", "Chicken Little" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest."

This year, QuVis has taken it one step farther and become every independent filmmaker's new best friend.  They've eliminated the hardware completely and developed "QuVIS Wraptor", a software plug in for Final Cut Studio which allows any Final Cut user to create DCI compliant DCPs.  The cost for this?  Under $700.

The resulting DCP can literally be burned onto DVD's and shipped to theaters, or placed on an FTP server for direct download by the theaters.  It's what independent filmmakers have been dreaming about for a long time... the ability to create high quality digital distribution files right from their desktop computers.

But there is a bit of bad news.

As of today, not that many theaters that are equipped with digital projection systems, though the number is growing daily.  Plus, the digital theaters that are up and running are under high demand from the major studios, which means the odds are slim that a theater will allow you to screen digitally even if they agree to book your film.  That is, unless you are willing to show them some cash.

According to an October 2, 2008 article in the L.A. Times, five Hollywood studios pledged their support for a $1 Billion plan to help theater chains throughout the country offset the $70,000 per screen cost required to convert from 35mm to digital projection.  This assistance will come in the form of a "Virtual Print Fee" of $800 to $1,000 per film, per screen.

Theaters have argued (rightfully so) that since the studios are saving an estimated $2,000 per print by distributing digitally, a portion of those savings should go to help theaters pay for the cost of installing the new digital projection equipment.  The plan calls for these fees to be paid out over the next eight to ten years.  Presumably, once the projection equipment is paid for in full, these fees would no longer be assessed.

So despite the fact that Digital Distribution is now a very real, and inexpensive option for distributing independent feature films, there are still a few hurdles which need to be overcome before independent filmmakers are truly on the same playing field with the majors.  In the meantime, filmmakers can take advantage of QuVIS' new offering and create fully compliant DCPs for distribution to film festivals hosted at DCI compliant theaters.

Greg Steiner

Check out our latest project at

Monday, October 27, 2008

Autographed Movie Poster Giveaway

To commemorate the launch of our Blog site and help get the word out, we thought it might be fun to give away an official movie poster for our upcoming comedy feature film Bumping off Burt, autographed by the director and members of the cast!

The poster measures 27" x 40" and is suitable for framing and display. It's the perfect addition to any home theater and will make you the envy of your friends! You can view the poster here.


To be eligible for this giveaway, become a follower or subscriber of this blog. Each follower will automatically receive one entry for the giveaway.  Subscribers will need to comment this post to let us know you are now one of our subscribers in order to be eligible for entries.

Additional entries will be awarded for performing any of the following actions:

-- Post a comment on any article on our blog (1 entry)
-- Digg or Stumble this blog (2 entries)
-- Digg or Stumble the film's website (2 entries)
-- Add Bumping off Burt as a friend on MySpace (3 entries)
-- Become a fan of Bumping off Burt on Facebook (3 entries)
-- Watch the trailer on YouTube and post a comment (3 entries)
-- Post a link to any of the articles published on our blog (4 entries)
-- Write about us or the film on your Blog (5 entries)

After completing an item in the list above, be sure to comment this post to let us know which item you completed, providing any information we would need for verification (web site address where you posted a link, Digg or Stumble user name, MySpace or Facebook name, etc.) Note: Please post a separate comment for each item. This allows us to easily track each additional entry to ensure you get all the entries you've earned.

The winner will be randomly selected from all entries on December 1st, 2008 and the winning name will be posted on this blog. The winner will need to contact us via e-mail at to provide a shipping address no later than December 15th. The poster will be shipped first class mail once shipping information is received.

Best of Luck to Everyone!

Greg Steiner

Note: If you found this giveaway on Bloggy Giveaways, you can return to them by clicking here.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Theatrical Self-Release for Low Budget Independent Films

When we first started pre-production on Bumping off Burt, we decided to plan for a theatrical release, even though we knew that the odds against finding a theatrical distributor were heavily stacked against us. It's fairly common knowledge that unless you have at least one well-known star in a leading role you don't stand much of a chance of securing a theatrical release from a traditional distributor.

Well, not being one to rule out anything until I've had the chance to take a shot at it myself, I started doing the research to find out what it would take to self-distribute an independent film theatrically, and found that although it's not an easy undertaking, it may not be as impossible as some would lead you to believe.

For the purpose of this article, I am defining theatrical release as a release to mainstream theater chains using a traditional distribution model, which I will explain in just a bit for those that aren't familiar with it. There are other methods of theatrical distribution such as "four walling" which are best used with small art house theaters and don't really apply if you're looking to get into your local 24 screen multiplex.

The first thing to understand is that the main cost factor in self releasing a film theatrically is advertising. Now, it's probably obvious that you need to advertise a film in order to plant viewers into the seats, but there's actually more to it that that. You see, you're actually competing to be the highest bidder against every other film that is being distributed at the same time.

When you approach a theater to try and book your film, the first question the theater owner or manager will ask is "What is your advertising budget?" Essentially, what the theater wants to know is how many customers they can expect your advertising to drive into their theater if they give you screen space. This is the main reason why you will rarely see a small independent film screening at your local multiplex. When major studios typically spend a minimum of $30 million in P&A (some films have P&A budgets of $150 million or more) there's very little incentive for a theater owner to give up his real estate for a small independent film with little to no advertising budget.

For reference, when you hear of an independent film playing in "select cities", it generally means that the film is opening with a $2 million P&A budget in the five biggest metropolitan areas: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dalllas, and Miami. That's $400,000 per city.

If you happen to be independently wealthy and have an extra half-million sitting in the bank, you could probably book your film into any theater, as long as you were willing to commit more ad dollars than your competitors. This is because, ultimately, theaters are only interested in how many people come through their door. It really doesn't matter much to them which film they've come to see, because...

Theaters make most of their money selling sugar, not tickets.

Let's say a theater agrees to screen your film. You run a local television ad campaign which brings 1000 people to the theater to see your film on opening night. Each person stops at the concessions counter and picks up a drink or small popcorn for $5.00 before heading in to watch your film.

Now lets pretend that your film was so bad that 900 of those people walked out after the first five minutes. Some might leave and go home, some will go to the manager and ask for a refund, but most will just go watch one of the other 23 movies playing in the theater. Regardless, the theater has still sold $5,000 in concessions.

Theaters depend on concession sales to stay in business. In fact, for most films, the theater will not make any money in ticket sales for the first two weeks of the films theatrical run.

All of the major studios usually require that 100% of the box office goes directly to the studio for the first two weeks. In week three, the theater will begin to split the box office proceeds 90/10 in favor of the studio. Each additional week thereafter, the theater will get a slightly bigger piece of the pie. This is why theaters like big blockbuster movies that have long theatrical runs.

You probably won't have any luck convincing a theater that your film will be able to run for six months, but if you can demonstrate that your film will bring customers to the concession counter, you are able to commit a reasonable amount of money to promote the film, and you offer a box office split from first dollar, you may have a very good chance of getting the theater to book your film.

Assuming you get lucky and find a theater that would be willing to give you a screen, the next factor to take into consideration is how you will deliver the film to the theater. There's really only two choices: 35mm film print, or digital cinema package. I'll go over each one and the costs involved in another post.

Happy Filmmaking!

Greg Steiner

Check out our latest project at

Welcome to the Q Station Blog!

Hello, and welcome to the blog!

I've been in the production business for over 20 years now, and have had the good fortune to have worked in many different areas of prodcution. I've recorded music albums in the studio, run live sound reinforcement systems for concert venues, produced and directed television commercials and educational television programs, and most recently produced and directed my first feature length comedy film, Bumping off Burt (

Recently, I've started to receive lots of e-mail requests from other independent filmmakers looking for advice on how they can avoid some of the pitfalls of producing films and television projects on a limited budget, and I noticed that many of the requests were similar in nature.

So on the recommendation of a friend, I decided it was time to set up a blog to share the information I've learned throughout my years in the production world, and hopefully learn a few new things from the countless others that are more experienced than myself.

I hope that ultimately, people will come to find this blog as a great resource for their own production projects, and a place to share all of the interesting stories, pitfalls, and successes that happen behind the scenes in the world of independent film production.

So with that being said, I hope you enjoy the blog, and if you have any comments, please feel free to post them. If you have a question or an idea for a future post, e-mail me and I will do my best to answer you as quickly as possible.

Best Wishes,

Greg Steiner