On Demand Weekly’s VOD Spotlight highlights stories in the On Demand industry. Adam Schartoff interviews writer-actor-director Edward Burns about his new film (“Nice Guy Johnny”), his ground-breaking digital distribution path and his recent promotional film tour across America. “Nice Guy Johnny” is available On Demand.
On Demand Weekly: “Nice Guy Johnny” debuted On Demand on October 26. Countless indie fans are going to be see your film on the smaller screen. Do you think movies benefit from theatrical screenings over the television screen in any way?
Ed Burns: I’m a realist when it comes to what has happened to the indie film business. A couple of thoughts about saying goodbye to the theatrical release: first off, when I was a kid in college and I first fall in love with movies, more specifically Woody Allen and Truffaut and Scorsese, all of those I watched, those films that made me want to do this for a living I saw off ratty video tapes on a 12” color TV in my dorm.
To this day I’ve never seen “Annie Hall” projected. I’ve never seen “The Godfather” projected. I’ve never seen “400 Blows” projected. I’ve only seen all these great films on a television. And that’s how I fell in love with these films. So, do I wish that there were still an audience out there that could still support these films theatrically? Yeah, that would be great. But I want to reach as wide an audience as possible. For two reasons: for one, you have a story to tell and you want people to see it. And also, the red carpet has become so cumbersome that you can’t make any money with theatrical.
So by going out with the VOD platform now, we’re going to be able to make real money. As long as we’re able to make real money we can get the next film made. That’s the name of the game.
One thing we’re doing with “Nice Guy Johnny” that I hope we can continue to do in the future is we’re doing a really aggressive film festival/film society screening tour. I’ve already been to Boston. I’m going to Austin and San Francisco. I’m going to Chicago tomorrow. We were in Woodstock and Tribeca. I sit in a much nicer theater than most of the art houses around the country, certainly than the New York City art houses.
ODW: You mean the ones over the subway stations?
EB: [Laughs] Exactly. So I still get my theatrical. I get the thrill of seeing my movie on the massive screen with an audience. You hear the collective laughter. So, I’m completely cool with it. And, something else, when you look at the traditional specialized platform release, my films –and most films now—you start in New York and L.A. and then you platform out. Most of them don’t get past the second or third platform. So if you don’t live anywhere near those eight cities, the eight major markets? Nobody who lives near those theaters saw any of our films in theaters anyhow. Even fifteen years ago. As you can tell, I’m more than over theatrical.
ODW: It seems like a very practical approach to getting more pairs of eyes to see Ed Burns’ films.
EB: A guy named John Sloss…
ODW: John Sloss, founder of Cinetic Media and Cinetic Rights Management. Owner of FilmBuff.
EB: Yeah, the argument he made to me was great. He said, “Okay, here’s the deal: you do a specialized release, you open up in New York and L. A. Four screens. Or you can go out on demand and you’re in over forty million homes.
ODW: When you put it that way…
EB: I mean, do the math. The potential upside is enormous. Then you factor in digital streaming, more specifically iTunes, and then we also collapsed our date for our DVD release. Fingers crossed, we’re going to be able to strike across all those platforms. It may just change the game.
ODW: Is there a sense that you’re getting in on the ground floor of something big?
EB: You know, I’m really just trying to stay in business.
ODW: When you went into this business you had a vision of making a movie a year like the Irish American Woody Allen. This was around the early 90s when “The Brothers McMullen” came out?
EB: I’m a kid in film school in the early 90s. I went to Hunter College. And that was just the goal. And it was an absurd goal to have. But then I did “The Brothers McMullen” and it worked. It played at Sundance and got picked up for distribution. And then I have enough of a name to get the next couple of films made.
ODW: You must have had myriad big budget Hollywood offers around that time.
EB: Yeah, and turned them all down. Partly because I never had the desire to direct an action film, a thriller or some big broad comedy. But also quite honestly out of fear. At that point in my career I didn’t want the pressure of someone giving me $45 million. I was much more comfortable working with $3 million or $4 million. And the other thing is, with my acting career, that’s where I can say, ok, what does it really matter? I’ll go act in some stupid horror movie, make some money, maybe I’ll learn something. That affords me a certain freedom to go off and fight the good fight with my filmmaking career.
ODW: You mentioned fighting the good fight. VOD seems like one strategy in fighting for your directing career and as a viable filmmaker in a shrinking marketplace.
EB: Without a doubt. It’s harder and harder getting movies made and art house theaters are closing every day.
ODW: Do you think certain types of films work better in the VOD platform better than others?
EB: I think most films works on VOD. [Inaudible] but something like a first tier or premiere option. The biggest complaint I’ve heard over the years is that your movies never get to the multiplex. So I always have to wait nine months after the movie comes out to see it on DVD. Now to be able to deliver your movie directly to your audience when they want it?
It’s kind of like what the music industry has begun to figure out. The fact that a band doesn’t need an A & R guy to determine whether or not they’re any good, then to get their music out. They now deliver their music directly to their fans. I think a similar shift has happened in the indie film business. And if you don’t jump in that water and swim with that current, you’re gonna go under. Just like they did in the music business.
ODW: What about finding new audiences? Is that up to the John Sloss’s of the world to help market, so people can keep finding Ed Burns?
EB: Even how you reach that perspective audience has changed dramatically in the past five years. Even had we sold the film to IFC or Magnolia, they don’t have the marketing dollars to compete with the Big Boys. You have to kind of recognize, you’re going to reach a smaller slice of that pie. What we’re doing is, given how much time people are spending online, a big part of the marketing is viral. Not traditional marketing.
By using things like Facebook and Twitter and film blogs, sports talk show hosts, sports bloggers. It’s trying to make use of how we are now communicating with one another, online. How do we spread the word about the film that way. We made about eight different trailers for “Nice Guy Johnny”. We’ve given away a bunch of different clips. All different types of ways to help people stumble upon the film and the hopefully buy it [available now].I also think you’ve got to be realistic with your expectations. We made this movie for $25,000. It’s a small film and we are not thinking we are going to be able to compete with the box office that “Napolean Dynamite” did. We’re not going to do those numbers.
We know for a fact that we’re gonna hit a single, and we’re keeping our fingers crossed that we hit a double. A single keeps me in business, has me making another movie in the Spring. A double has me making another movie and putting some money aside. That’s the only thing we’re trying to do here, is to keep the doors to the shop open.
ODW: Until you make it to the next double, or triple.
EB: You asked about marketing. Another interesting thing that’s happened with the VOD angle, we did a special screening for the Tribeca Film Festival. One of their relationships is with Comcast. I don’t know if you’re aware that Tribeca did this whole viral festival.
ODW: Yes, they started this just this past season.
EB: We were one of the films that were included in that. Comcast wanted to do a screening down in D.C. We did that and then we were talking to one of the big wigs who happens to be a big indie film buff. He felt Comcast’s on demand channel could be a destination for indie film lovers. Is there a way to shape it so that if you like these movies, you go “oh, go to the on demand channel and it will be like walking into The Angelika (a New York City art house theatre).
ODW: Only without the F train running underneath?
EB: So we came up with this thing called The Indie Movie Club. I’m the first guest curator. It’s my picks and flicks. So, I recommend seven classic indie titles and do little interviews of why I love “She’s Gotta Have It”, “Metropolitan”, and “The Squid and The Whale”, and they pick seven of my older movies. And each month they bring in another guest curator whether it’s an actor who’s got a movie coming on demand next month. And they’ll do his indie picks. They’re exploring how do we make this a cool destination for people who like these titles. We’re fairly confident that this is going to work.
ODW: Well the hairs are standing up on he back of my neck. As a long time fan of indie films, going back to the days of John Sayles and Cassavettes, I love the idea. You’ve got so many indie film lovers so starved, not just for finding the films but for finding each other. You’re also joining an advisory board with On Demand Weekly, correct?
EB: Yes. I had just happened to stumble across one of their tweets at some point. I checked out the website. I thought, “this is a great website for guys like me. Like you were saying, our tribe needs that website (www.ondemandweekly.com). A place where you can go to find out what’s coming out this week. I can actually go and rent or buy “Please Give” to night. So, I just reached out, I emailed them and told them I love you site. You know, keep it up.
Then Britt [Britt Bensen, founder of On Demand Weekly’s website and newsletter] got back to me. We got on the phone and started B.S.ing about the future of the movies we love.
He asked would I ever like to help out with the site. So now I’ll be recommending something like four new titles a month that are coming up on demand. A real die-hard indie movie fan will probably have heard about one of these films but your sister who lives in the ‘burbs might not.
Hopefully I can turn some people on to some of these titles. It just seems like a cool thing to do.
ODW: So is the capacity within the advisory board limited to doing this monthly picks article or are there other areas you will be involved with?
EB: Well, it’s brand new but as time passes it’ll become more evident. It’s their site but if they ever need introductions made to anyone on my side of the business perhaps I can help facilitate that kind of stuff.
ODW: Again you’re helping to create a resource for this new emerging distribution vehicle. It’s still the wild west out there.
EB: It’s the wild west, you’re absolutely right. There’s enough of us out there who believe in it and care about it so we’re circling the wagons.
ODW: You certainly have John Sloss’s complete support. They’re certainly putting a lot of their focus on the success of “Nice Guy Johnny”.
EB: John is the guy who convinced me that the on demand option could potentially rewrite the rules of how these films get to people. And he was very persuasive in that argument. I am a converted believer now. The other great thing is that we don’t sell out movies any more. You own the film and you license it. And as these new ways of delivering these films evolve —because who knows where we are going to be in five or ten years from now— the fat that we control the rights now. And we can figure out the way to monetize the film when that new platform introduces itself?
It’s a major major advantage as opposed to having gone theatrical. I would’ve sold the movie for peanuts, and that would be it. And have no say in anything that happens with the film the moment I sign that contract. That’s over. We are now in charge of our own destinies.
ODW: That must be very liberating. Is there any longer the motivation to cast big names?
EB: The great thing, what with these budgets, we no longer have to fill up your cast with a bunch of names, if you will. We found four completely unknown kids, a few who had never really been in front of a camera before. You make a low-budget film and you need crazy people. You need people who want to be there because they love it.
Nobody looks at it like a job; they look at it like it’s their life’s work. And these unknown kids, they couldn’t believe they were cast as a lead in a feature film. I’ll never go back. I have no interest in making a bigger budgeted film. I would never go near a studio. We are so confident that this model will work. Now we make small movies and not be interfered with. And that’s pretty liberating.