This week’s blog has been inspired by a great Christmas film and my favourite film of all time- ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. There are spoilers in here so if you haven’t seen the film, go and watch it and come back to read this in a couple of days when you come down from your high. I’m not going to write too much about story or filmmaking techniques here, and it’s not an analysis of the film, it’s just some fun lessons we can learn. So...
Release your film at the right time: the film wasn’t a success at the box office (but wasn’t a total flop as is often believed), grossing around half its production costs. However- maybe things could have been different; this is a great Christmas film so releasing in December would have made sense but it only went on wide release on January 7th. A costly mistake.
Cinema might not be your best platform: after it’s lukewarm box office and one solidarity Oscar win (from 6 nominations however) the film was forgotten about for decades. It only came back into public consciousness and gained the prominence it deserved after a clerical error in the copyright allowed dozens of US TV stations to screen it freely in the late 70s and early 80s, making it a massive family hit. Although we as filmmakers dream of a big cinema release, perhaps we should be exploring other platforms more to find our audience, after all, there are dozens of distribution methods out there.
Double up on locations: in the film there’s a scene where the gym has a sliding floor which reveals a swimming pool underneath (it might seem a bit contrived but it was actually a real location in a high school). What can you learn from this? Use the building you hire for two or more locations, saves you money and travelling time, helping you get the most value for your production. I did this in Young Hearts Run Free by changing the wallpaper and furniture coverings.
Crowd-funding relationships take time: George Bailey benefits from some crowd-funding, because he has been benefiting these people for a number of years, they like him and want to support him. Value and respect people over a period of time and provide a benefit to them and it will help your crowd-fund campaign.
Appreciate your day job: Many filmmakers these days need to keep up a day job in order to support their film career. Don’t be ashamed or frustrated by this and instead show some passion in your day job. George Bailey hates his job but realises its importance and demonstrates great passion towards it. It will make you a much happier person, and more relaxed when you get home, ready to start your film work. I’ve been lucky enough to have jobs working with the kind of people I like to make films about so it has tied in with my films and made them authentic.
Sometimes it’s okay for actors to look into the camera: Actors look into the camera two or three times in this film, think how much it intensifies the drama. As a bonus, here are some other technique tips from the film- the opening prayers for George lets the audience relax knowing there will be big drama later- useful given the time it takes to get there. Also, just how fresh is that freeze-frame the first time we see adult George? Remember this film was made in 1946. Brilliant.
Don’t become warped and frustrated: Becoming a ‘warped, frustrated young man’ can lead to becoming a ‘warped, frustrated old man’ so don’t let frustration get the better of you. Rather than moan about funding bodies having favourites, meddling script notes or audiences not knowing anything- believe in yourself and the path you’re on, keeping learning and evaluating and make things happen for yourself. These days your film career is in your own hands, more than it has ever been.
I’ll sum up by saying that although this is my favourite film and one of my favourite pieces of art in the history of the world- I do still have an uneasy relationship with it (maybe that’s why I connect with it so well). As filmmakers we’re like George- full of grand plans and ambitions but should we be happy to settle for a more normal life? I’ve always found it to be an awkward question. Now as I’ve grown older I’ve learned to never stop with the ambitions but still appreciate the journey and be grateful for the life you have.
Haven’t written a blog post for a while so I thought I’d jump back in with a Christmas film themed post. It’s a look at some Christmas films and a proposal that you could have distribution success with one of your own.
Here’s a little challenge for you- could you make a Christmas film?
Back in the summer during one of my many distribution conversations with CinemaZero founder Tom Wilton, we brought up the subject of Christmas films and how they have broad audience appeal. We thought you could make a film with ‘Christmas’ in the title and someone would definitely buy it. Also when distributing a film, you notice that films are often listed in alphabetical order, meaning ‘Christmas... whatever’ would be fairly high on the list (and my film ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ fairly low). So starting the process in reverse, having a good chance of distribution is one good reason to make a Christmas film.
There has always been a potential market for this (think of all those terrible cable TV Christmas movies Sky used to show) but now there a greater opportunities with a wealth of new platforms which audiences are becoming more familiar with. You don’t have to aim for a cinema release, you could even just put it on Distrify and get people to share it on Facebook or, with networks having Christmas schedules to fill, you could do a straight to TV deal.
In this instance, these distribution methods potentially have a much broader appeal than with any other project during any other time of the year. At this time so many people just want to watch almost anything to do with Christmas. They’ll pull out all the old favourites but then they’ll be looking for something new. The other advantage of Christmas films is that they have a chance to grow in stature and popularity year on year and become one of the classics people turn to (Elf was an instant Christmas classic, It’s A Wonderful Life wasn’t). How many films would you watch at least once a year, even though you’ve seen them a dozen times before? Probably only a handful (Back to the Future is on this list for me) but not many, yet when it comes to Christmas films people watch them again and again every year. You wouldn’t watch a so-so family comedy like Home Alone that many times if it wasn’t a Christmas film. This could be your film.
Still don’t think it’s your thing? Wouldn’t suit your genre or style? Well it needn’t be a mushy family movie; whichever genre you usually work in, you can do the same with your new Christmas film. They can encompass all sorts of different genres, from Action (Die Hard and Die Hard 2), contrived rom-coms (Love Actually, The Holiday),War (Joyeux Noel), bad-taste comedy (Bad Santa), Horror (Gremlins), musicals (White Christmas) and weird-animation-horror-musical- (The Nightmare Before Christmas).
How would you make it? Depending on the story and the genre, you might not need a huge budget. If you’re aiming for other platforms instead of a theatrical release then you might not need the star names so you could do it on a very low budget. To look Christmassy you may need snow which is something you can’t really plan for in the UK, unlike parts of Europe and the USA. Many of the best Christmas films were shot in studios in August but without having those snow machines available you might just have to film in winter, make use of the decorations around the place and keep the camera handy for when the white stuff comes.
You’ll also need a great story. This is true of any genre so why set it at Christmas? Part of writing is creating the world of the characters and using customs and rituals gives the audience something that they can latch onto and understand, something which already has meaning attached (like Four Weddings and a Funeral- it isn’t about ordinary Saturdays and Wednesdays.) With Christmas you have a holiday that most of the western world recognises and attaches meaning to. You can then use this meaning, or undercut it, to enhance your drama, romance or action.
So there you go. Get writing, shoot next winter, release the winter after.
As a post-script and inspiration, here are my thoughts on some well-known Christmas films.
It’s A Wonderful Life- almost perfect. The whole reason I got into filmmaking, still my favourite film of all time and so uplifting it’ll put you on a high for days. Still totally relevant to our world today (ordinary people needing to stand up to greedy bankers) and I don’t think anyone has made a better film in the last 68 years. I’m doing a whole blog post about it next week.
Home Alone- silly slapstick family comedy but Kevin is pretty amazing, especially how he manages to get the mess tidied up so quickly afterwards. The action scenes are so good James Bond copied them in Skyfall.
Elf- instant Christmas classic. Still find it funny even 11 years later. Really inventive in all sorts of different ways (North Pole animation, production design, Buddy being the world’s best snowball fighter). Will Ferrell’s sweetest man-child role; glad it didn’t go ahead ten years earlier when Jim Carey was signed on to play Buddy.
The Nativity Story- realistic depiction of the story in Matthew and Luke's gospels; far away from commercialisation, global-warming inducing light displays, 'Black Friday', shit songs, eating far too much whilst others are left to starve and all the other crap that goes with a modern Christmas. A film for remembering the birth of a baby who grew up to preach helping those less fortunate than yourself, treating the whole world as your friend and neighbour and spreading peace and tolerance. It'll never catch on.
Love Actually- so many under-developed and silly rom-com subplots. Colin Firth recycles some jokes from Four Weddings, Liam Neeson is hard as nails in every other film but he’s a big softy here and it’s all a bit mushy, apart from Laura Linney and Emma Thompson. However, the Keira Knightly and Andrew Lincoln storyline is brilliant with a great reveal and Martine McCutcheon is utterly enchanting as Natalie, they should have just made a rom-com starring her character. She’s beautiful, I still really fancy her and she should have made more films after this.
A Christmas Carol- everyone has had a go at this story, from Shakespearean actors to Mickey Mouse and The Muppets so pick whichever version you like. Bill Murray’s speech at the end of stupid modern update Scrooged is still uplifting enough to make me cry but for my recommendation, go for the George C. Scott version from the 1970s.
Miracle on 34th Street- do yourselves a favour and watch the 1940s black and white original rather than the lacklustre 90s remake with its forced slapstick, garish colours and gushing over-sentimentality (although Attenborough is brilliant of course). This also has the biggest plot-holes in the history of Christmas movies: surely parents know if they’re the ones who put their kid’s presents under the tree, rather than Santa? It’s an obvious question that no one asks. Does it really need a costly court case to work it out?
Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas)- pretty good stab at capturing the Christmas Truce of the First World War in 1914 (but not as good as my version will be when I finally finish the script, that’s my Christmas film). Some bits are way too contrived and take the action away from the trenches; as nice as it is seeing gorgeous Diane Kruger topless, I’d rather they skipped the shoe-horned opera singer romance subplot and concentrated on the true story of the men in the front lines, experiencing history’s most meaningful Christmas Eve and my favourite moment of the twentieth century.
Santa Claus: The Movie- terribly 80s, pretty silly. The origin story in the first ten minutes is far and away the best bit.
The Polar Express- Robert Zemeckis once directed one of the best films of all time, a sci-fi filled with warmth, humour and heart, and then he goes and creates this soulless, lifeless crap.
In addition- If you want to watch a Christmas film but can’t really justify it (ie if it’s not December yet) here are some Christmas films that aren’t Christmas films:
Groundhog Day – it’s set in a small town in winter and is an uplifting social fantasy (inspired by It’s A Wonderful Life). Really funny but spoiled by Andie MacDowell, surely other actresses were available? Back to the Future- watch any time but it’s set in October and November with different versions of a small town (again inspired by It’s A Wonderful Life, especially part 2 of the franchise). Bruce Almighty- yet another inspired by It’s A Wonderful Life, he even lassoes the moon. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg- best watched on a rainy Autumn afternoon, if you don’t mind crying. The last bittersweet scenes are set at Christmas. When Harry Met Sally- joined with Umbrella’s of Cherbourg as my favourite romance film. Very smart rom-com with even smarter and funnier female lead and that perfect tear-jerking romantic finale on New Year’s Eve. Harry Potter- fantasy always seems a bit Christmassy and the wizard franchise has some great yuletide moments such as Ron and Harry only having each other for company on Christmas Day and Harry and Hermione’s emotional return to Godrig’s Hollow on Christmas Eve in Deathly Hallows. Then there are other great films which have nothing to do with it but are always shown at Christmas; fantastic lads’ adventures like Zulu and The Great Escape. Then if Christmas films needed a summer version this would be it; the classic Sound of Music.
Feel free to get in touch with your comments!
Next week my blog is about what filmmakers can learn from It’s A Wonderful Life.