Monday Prescriptions – Success That Wasn’t (Or Why First Released Features Aren’t Always “The One”)

Hi Film Doctor Folk! 

Are you sitting patiently, waiting for your script to be optioned or that production budget to be granted? Or have you done your market research, found your audience, and are slowly but surely climbing up the film industry mountain, with available resources and entrepreneurial spirit?

Today The Film Doctor Team is advising on the dangers of raising too many hopes for a first project, as well as believing in “overnight success”.

When you have eventually reached the stage of making your first feature film, approach it with solid business acumen and realistic expectations – more often than not the first feature film you release won’t bring you blockbuster financial returns. This, however, doesn’t mean that it can’t become a critically acclaimed success and establish your name in the industry – if you bring the right ‘package’, you will gain the rightful recognition.

It’s just that your first released project is unlikely to make you rich. If you’re lucky to see the film bring returns, there are a lot of people (distributors, exhibitors, any investors, any crew/cast with deferred payment, etc.) that will get a slice of that pie well before you do. And as a first-timer you might not be given much say on this – it is only when the industry starts to “trust” you as a filmmaker (Producer, Director or Screenwriter) that you can secure yourself a decent monetary gain.

Another common misconception is that success comes at once, the minute you get the coveted theatrical distribution. Actually, very often it is not the first but the second feature you release that brings true renown (in the part of the marketplace you have aimed for), money in the bank and invites to festivals/parties.

While it might seem that filmmakers can just suddenly burst onto the scene with a key project, in reality there is nothing sudden in any film career. Behind every successful feature film release stands at least a couple of preceding lesser known projects (shorts or features alike)  and at least a year of painstaking developments, raising finance and industry ties.

Here’s an example of few, now established, filmmakers’ released feature films – the ones just before their worldwide fame:

  • Michel Hazanavicius before “The Artist” (2011) – “OSS 117” (2006) – A very stylish homage to classic spy movies (in fact, two, “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies” and “OSS 117: Lost in Rio”), which also stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, and features impressive set pieces.  It was no small feat with its estimated budget of €14,000,000 and support from the French M6 Films, Gaumont and Canal+ , however the film(s) recouped well only on domestic front (although it did go to 8 foreign territories).
  • Christopher Nolan before “Memento” (2000) – “Following” (1998) – Nolan’s debut feature “Following” was far from a commercial success, with extremely limited theatrical release even in the UK, yet crossed the markets thanks to US distribution from Zeitgeist Films (theatrical). Notably, Video & DVD distribution options came only after Nolan succeeded with “Memento” – 2003 with Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment (DVD), 2010 with Independent Film Channel (IFC) (DVD/Video, On Demand).
  • Peter Jackson before “Heavenly Creatures” (1994) – “Bad Taste” (1987) – Way before “The Rings Trilogy” or even “Heavenly Creatures” , Jackson had a string of “splatter films”, starting with “Bad Taste” – a short-turned-90-minute-feature comedy splatter about intergalactic fast-food chain owners & flesh-eating aliens, featuring many of Jackson’s friends as cast/crew (working for free and shooting mostly on weekends). The film was completed thanks to a late injection of finance from the New Zealand Film Commission, after Jim Booth, the body’s executive director, became convinced of Jackson’s talent (Booth later left the Commission to become Jackson’s producer). In May 1987, “Bad Taste” was unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival, where rights to the film quickly sold to twelve countries.
  • Quentin Tarantino before “Pulp Fiction” (1994) – “My Best Friend’s Birthday” (1987) – Tarantino’s first ever feature film attempt was cooked up (together with Craig Hamann) during his time as a Manhattan Beach Video Archives employee and cost a mere $5,000. The original 70-minutes version was partially destroyed in a post-production fire, yet the re-cut 36 minutes did make a round of film festivals. “My Best Friend’s Birthday” has never been officially released and Tarantino has referred to it as his film school. Nonetheless, the script for “My Best Friend’s Birthday” served as the basis for another, more successful, screenplay – commissioned and directed by Tony Scott as “True Romance” (1993).  And, of course, we must mention the other, real feature film debut “Reservoir Dogs” (1992) – critically acclaimed yet commercially weak upon release.

‘Monday Prescription’ No.34 – Be aware that your first released feature film is, if anything, more likely to be a critical than commercial success. Like with every profession, first you build the reputation, then the riches.

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Any questions/thoughts/experiences of your own??? Leave a comment below!
Have a great week!
The Film Doctor Team
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