Cinema Needs Saving

People of Earth, I come to you today with exciting news.

I’ve been keeping mum about this for a long time, mostly out of superstition. They say you shouldn’t tell people you’re pregnant until after the first trimester just in case something should go wrong, and I’ve taken the  same tactic here. But now it’s time for me to let the cat out of the bag:

I’m pregnant.

Wait, why did I say that? No. Definitely not pregnant.

No, I want to tell you about a new cinematic venture that I am proud to be a part of: Region Zero. I’ll be dedicating a week’s worth of posts to discussing the ethos of Region Zero, and how it will work in the real world. Today: a seed germinates.

I spent most of last March in Santa Fe, working with Vvinni Gagnepain on his film Delicious Pound Cake. Most of my off-set activity consisted of pacing back and forth in Vvinni’s dorm room and ranting about the film industry for hours on end. Those rants got me scheming, and one day towards the end of production I sent a long, rambling email to Vvinni and a couple other like-minded maniacs. I excerpt it below:

Before reading this, you must read The Day the Movies Died, by Mark Harris for GQ. It’s long, but you have to read the whole thing. It’s some of the best film-industry commentary I’ve ever encountered.

I was watching an interview with Atom Egoyan the other day, and he was lamenting the death of the medium-sized movie. He says that big-budget ($20 million+) features have a future and that tiny backyard features do as well, but that the market for smaller, intelligent movies aimed at adult audiences—the kind of movies he makes—is drying up, and opportunities are vanishing with them. It’s made me think about the future of movies, and particularly movies made for smart, discerning audiences.

Hollywood makes movies for 14-year-old boys. It seems to work for them, and as they have discovered, this business model means that they never need to develop original properties; they can rely on existing brands (like Battleship or Rubik’s Cube—yes, Rubik’s Cube) to sell their films based on name recognition rather than worrying about the quality of their product. It’s frustrating, because Hollywood used to be my one shining goal in life. Now I don’t think you could make me work for Universal even if you gave me a $90 million development deal. Don’t you feel the same? Because all that money comes with little strings attached to it that pull you in all different directions, and it just seems like more and more, there’s no way to be creative inside these giant money-making institutions that (let’s face it) are going to come crashing down just like the music industry, and sooner rather than later.

Unfortunately, film as art (in America, anyway) is married to film as business. I humbly suggest that it’s time for a divorce. I’m talking about production companies as nonprofit organizations, their goal being to make good movies that people like, rather than to turn a profit. Eddie Izzard said once, “I’m a creativist—I don’t make things in order to make money, I make money in order to make things.” Can you think of a business model that, if widely adopted, would terrify Hollywood more than that?

Region ZeroSome nine months later, those first fevered ramblings have come to fruition, and Region Zero is now a bouncing baby corporation. For the time being we’re functioning as a subsidiary of the St. Paul-based Springboard for the Arts. They have accepted us into their incubator program, which allows us to use their 501(c)(3) status for our own fundraising—meaning that any donations to us are tax-deductible. It’s like money laundering, but totally legal!

There’s more nuance to the business model that I’ll be covering in an upcoming post, but there’s another equally-exciting piece to this puzzle: our first movie.

All of Region Zero’s board members agreed that as our mission in its simplest form is to make movies, we needed to start work on our first feature film right away. This would be a flagship film, our calling card to the world, and a test case demonstrating that we are capable of achieving our stated goals. I’m excited to announce that the film we selected is a one that I wrote earlier this year and will be directing. Given only a few minor unexpected disasters, production will begin in Minnesota this February. More details on the movie forthcoming this week.

Region Zero is a labor of love, and our first movie doubly so: we’re taking “low-budget” to new lows. I normally feel guilty about not paying cast and crew what they’re worth, but here we’re all on an equal footing. We’re all working on this movie because it’s something that we believe in, and if we should win the lottery in distribution, no one person benefits financially at everyone else’s expense—our nonprofit business model dictates that the revenues from this project be reinvested in Region Zero to help fund the next film.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that this movie is one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on. It’s a small family drama—written specifically for the purpose of being cheap to make, so it’s not exactly breaking any new ground in that respect. Still, it’s a welcome return to form for me, and the production model is truly refreshing to someone like myself who has become jaded with how Hollywood’s sausage gets made. Stay tuned for more in-depth coverage of this new venture!

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