After I left Yale with my M.Div. degree in 1978, I spent the next two plus decades as a free-lancer. First as a musician. Then as a stand-up comic. And finally screenwriter.
In 2002, one of my best friends [who I had met as a fellow grad student at Yale] asked me to join him in a new company he had co-founded: Trailblazer Studios.
And so for the first time in my life, I had a ‘real’ job and a title: Executive Producer. With its production facilities in Raleigh, North Carolina, I relocated my family to Chapel Hill.
Trailblazer Studios is primarily a TV production outfit and during my 8 years there, my responsibility was to oversee the company’s development division.
At one point, however, we explored low-budget filmmaking. That led to an interesting journey, something I thought GITS readers would find both interesting and informative, especially those of you who are less interested in writing mainstream commercial movies and more ‘indie’-type fare.
When we set out to explore low-budget filmmaking, one of the first things we did at Trailblazer was meet with the filmmakers of the movie Kaaterskill Falls, a 2001 project that cost about $20K and turned a tidy profit after obtaining a domestic cable and foreign distribution deal. This introduced us to the world of micro-budget movies.
We met with other filmmakers. I did a ton of research as well. As a result, we came up with a business model featuring two guiding principles:
* We would make movies targeting Baby Boomers and Seniors, the largest demographic groups with the most disposable income, the most free time and a generational love-affair with movies. They were being ignored by Hollywood. In our minds, they represented a largely untapped market.
* We would create a set of production guidelines to ensure our movies would cost no more than $500K-1M, enabling us to produce quality entertainment while minimizing financial risk and maximizing our chance for profitability.
Here is that list of production guidelines:
* A 90-page script.
* A 4-5 week shoot.
* A small, but professional ‘guerilla’ crew.
* No more than 10 actors.
* One primary location [to minimize travel costs].
* No special effects.
* Most scenes in the script would involve only a few actors to minimize complicated setups and shots.
* Set the story in a state with an advantageous film rebate system.
There were other considerations, but these are the main points.
Now we needed a script. We reviewed dozens of possibilities. None worked for our criteria. So I figured since I was a screenwriter, why not take a crack at it myself?
Then I did what I had been doing for years: Brainstormed story ideas. Only this time, I did so with our production guidelines and specific target demos in mind.
I came up with what I thought was a solid idea. I pitched it to the company. The response was positive. So I went away and wrote the script. Here is an overview of the story:
Every winter, three couples — each of them senior citizens — drive their recreational vehicles from their homes in different parts of the country to rendezvous in a remote location in northern New Mexico. Not an RV site, but off-road. Beautiful and secluded.
As usual, they gather together. They swap photos of their children and grandchildren. They share meals and stories. And the guys get set to engage in an annual competition: The Geezer Games, a series of events including darts, horseshoes, and such.
This year is different. On their first night together, they see the headlights of an approaching car. Up pull three college students.
The young people are here on a mission to spend time with the youngest member of the group, Abby, a 21 year-old photography student. This particular spot has personal meaning to her, tied to her youth and memories of her family having camped in the location.
So per the setup, on one side there are the Seniors, unhappy to discover these young people interrupting their annual getaway.
On the other side, there are the Juniors, bummed to have a bunch of old farts disrupting their plans to party and have fun.
The wild card: Abby is dying of terminal cancer. This trip is her last wish, a chance to get away from her harsh reality and share some quality time with her best friends before she returns to hospitalization and hospice care.
The story transpires over the course of four days where this disparate group of people transforms into an ad hoc ‘family’ around Abby.
I wrote a 95-page script called “Snowbirds.” Trailblazer acquired the project. And we were on our way to making a low-budget independent feature.
Next week: Part Two of the “Snowbirds” saga and low-budget filmmaking.