Ed Burns began his filmmaking career with 1995’s The Brothers McMullen, which earned him serious indie cred and launched his career as both a writer/director and actor. He went on to direct numerous independent features after McMullen, including She’s the One and Sidewalks of New York. Among his biggest acting credits have been, of course, Saving Private Ryan, but also 15 Minutes, in which he starred opposite Robert De Niro, and Confidence, with Dustin Hoffman. Entourage fans also know him as a regular on that show for several seasons as the creator of Johnny Drama’s TV series, Five Towns.
Ed’s 2007 film, Purple Violets, also managed to create a stir when it was first released not in theaters but as an exclusive download on iTunes. When I heard about his latest film, Nice Guy Johnny, which will be released on October 26th, I was curious to hear how he would be approaching the release strategy this time around, and was extremely grateful for an opportunity to interview him after the screening and Q&A session in Boston. Ed was enormously generous with his time, especially given the fact that he had just finished answering audience questions for half an hour and signing autographs for each person who waited in line for a chance to meet him.
The film, which was shot for $25,000 in ten days on a RED ONE and looks like it cost a hundred times its budget, tells the story of Johnny, played by Matt Bush, a New Yorker living in California with his fiancée. The marriage is fast approaching, and Johnny is barely making ends meet working the graveyard shift as a sports talk DJ at an Oakland radio station. On a weekend visit to New York, where he’s planning on interviewing for a boring, better paying job that his fiancée wants him to take and that has been set up by her father, he ends up spending time hanging out on Long Island with his Uncle Terry, played by a very funny Burns, who’s not a big fan of the upcoming marriage or the boring job offer. Terry introduces Johnny to the beautiful tennis instructor Brooke, played by Kerry Bishé, and the movie basically takes off from there.
During the Q&A, which also featured Kerry Bishé, Ed spoke about how the film was actually inspired by experiences he’s had as a filmmaker, as he’s needed to choose between more lucrative, mainstream projects and the low budget independent cinema that is obviously his passion. What he’s done over the past few years is essentially strengthen his commitment to indies, but with a twist: instead of making films that require studio backing or extensive financing, Burns’s latest film, and the scripts he has in development, will be produced without studio interference, and instead of chasing after the promise of theatrical distribution, he will only pursue a theatrical release if the situation calls for it. In other words, he’s the poster child for digital distribution, fully embracing a landscape where audiences can download his movies on the portable device or cable box of their choice. And that’s where our conversation began.
What’s going on in independent distribution today?
Three years ago, we made this film called Purple Violets. And at the time, we had started to feel a shift was taking place. A similar thing that happened in the music business we thought was happening in the film business. There were dozens of independent movies that had come out in that year, some of them with very big movie stars, all of them with substantial budgets — by substantial meaning more than a million dollars — and these movies were coming out in theaters and were in and out in a weekend. And companies like ThinkFilm, Warners Independent, Picturehouse, Miramax, Paramount Vantage, and I’m probably forgetting another half dozen, were releasing these films, and the movies weren’t doing any business. You got a postage stamp sized ad in the New York Times for the weekend that you opened in New York and L.A., and then the movie was gone. And the distributers were going out of business. And we just thought, this isn’t working anymore.
Purple Violets was an interesting story, because you were one of the first to release your film exclusively on iTunes.
The first. We recognized that what was happening with these indie film distribution companies is that they stopped paying fees for movies and started doing no-advance partnerships. We looked at that and said we can do better than that. Because once you enter into that partnership you’re never going to see any money anyhow. So we thought, what’s a way where we can get some money back for this film. We just did some homework and tried to figure out, how can we do this, and iTunes looked like the smartest choice, and it turned out that the film was enormously successful on iTunes. So going into this film [Nice Guy Johnny], three years later, we kind of knew how we wanted to do it — we had a number in our head. We looked at Brothers McMullen and we said, we made that movie for $25,000. We made it in 12 days with an unknown cast. And most people think it’s one of my best movies, and it’s certainly my most successful. At the time I didn’t know anyone in the business, didn’t really know how to make a movie yet, and it still worked. So we said, let’s do it again. Let’s replicate the model.
Almost a French New Wave model. You get the money to make the film, you make enough to pay for the film, make everybody happy, and then you make another film.
That was it. We set those parameters for what we were going to do on this film. And we now [after Purple Violets] knew what we could make on an iTunes sale, and we knew from Brothers McMullen that we could make a movie for $25,000. So when we took the movie to Tribeca, we had a number in mind that we thought we could make without having to sell the rights to the movie, what we thought we could make on iTunes, through video on demand, which we knew IFC and Magnolia were doing, and what we knew we could make on the DVD if we did our own sales. So we had a number that distributors needed to beat. And nobody beat it, and we just decided to do it ourselves.
So how does it work with on demand rights? What percentage of those sales go to you?
In our case, we worked with a company called FilmBuff. They’re an aggregator. We licensed the film to them. And they then supply the film to every cable provider, to iTunes, to Netflix, Amazon, XBox, Playstation, what have you. They don’t buy your movie outright. They’re just licensing your movie. So the good news is, we still own the film. And that changes the game. And depending on how the film does through these different distribution avenues will determine how much they’ll make and how much we’ll make.
So it’s almost like pre-sales. You can almost project in advance what a film can make.
We can project what we think the minimum number will be. A lot of this we based on the success of Purple Violets. We know the number we need to hit. If we can make it for less than that, then we’re always going to make money, which enables us to make another movie. Granted, a $25,000 budget includes a lot of deferred costs. We did a partnership with everyone who worked on the film. Everyone gets a piece of the movie. As we start to make money, everyone will participate in the profits.
So five years from now, if you make one movie a year, they would each be done with this method of distribution?
That’s the plan. We build up a fan base. We build up a library that we own. You know, five years from now, five films, that’s a library that has some real value. But the theatrical market for these movies is disappearing dramatically.
Is it hard to get that point across to people when you talk to them?
It’s not hard to get it across to consumers. The idea of a movie going straight to video to anyone who’s under the age of thirty, that has no meaning.
They’ve blurred the distinction?
It’s not even about blurring the distinction. It doesn’t have any meaning. They don’t know from it. They’re used to streaming movies. They’ve been watching movies on their computers since they were teenagers. The idea of watching a movie on a mobile device or a computer is just how they consume these things. For the next movie, we want the break it up into webisodes. And we want to release the first three webisodes for free, and then charge for the last forty minutes.
What about if you write a script and you decide you want to put in another movie star, a bigger budget…
Right now for the next two to three years there are three films that I know I want to make. The scripts are done and we’re just going to move forward making those, and it’s a long term plan that we have in place with this business model. We want to explore what can be done with feature length narratives and this new digital revolution.
What makes what you’re doing cool is that you’re not turning your back on the industry, you’re still an industry guy…
One of the best arguments anyone made to me about this [digital distribution] was when we were talking about our favorites films. I’m a big Woody Allen guy, I’m a big Truffaut guy, love Italian Neo-Realism, the French New Wave — I never saw any of those films in a movie theater. I saw them all on VHS, and that’s where I fell in love with them. So he said to me, why are we holding onto the idea that these films need to be released theatrically? I’ll always do the film festival tour to satisfy the need to see it projected. But the vast majority of people won’t see it that way anymore. Those people who lamented the death of the LP, and then the CD, and who now bemoan, you should not listen to an MP3 on those tiny earbuds. Look, Sticky Fingers is still a great album. Maybe it doesn’t sound as good as it should, but the point of it still gets across. Your movie on an iPad, if it’s a good story, with good performances and a good screenplay, is still going to come across.
You could even make the argument that you can still have the blockbusters, you can have the spectacle, and then you can also have a more personal, more intimate, less expensive expression.
Exactly. Look, the whole business for me since day one has been juggling the compromises. You make a movie for $25,000, there’s one list of compromises, and I’ve grown more and more comfortable with those. You make a movie for a million dollars plus — whether it’s one million or a hundred million — there’s a whole other laundry list of compromises. And with each million you get, there are more compromises. The title. The actors. Changes of dialogue. Changes of scenes. So you just have to weigh your compromises. And I’d rather make a movie with five actors and three locations than have to deal with someone telling me who I should cast, or how I should change my script, or what ending I should have, or changing the title.
I think this is relevant to the discussion about the tough year it’s been for independent film.
Somebody gave us a number. To release a film on four screens for one weekend, to do New York/L.A. on four screens, it’s a minimum of $300,000. Just to do the minimal marketing and book out the theaters. Best case scenario, even if you’re very successful, you’re only going to make back $150,000 that weekend. So your first weekend you’re in the hole $150,000. That’s bad business. We decided to forgo that. And now we start making money from day one.
Could you imagine taking it even further? Being even more of an entrepreneur. Owning a channel, or getting a bunch of filmmakers together to purchase a distribution network…
The internet is changing day by day. YouTube didn’t exist six years ago. iPads didn’t exist six months ago. Netflix streaming is new. iTunes and Amazon are now offering content at 99 cents. This thing is changing so rapidly. All I know is I want to make my movies available to people when they want them, and I want to be able to communicate with that audience directly. So if I can supply the film to them on the day that they want it, that’s a happier audience.
Nice Guy Johnny will be available on iTunes, Amazon VOD, and many other on demand providers, including your cable provider, on October 26th. Definitely check it out!