A Filmmaker on Film
The last showing of Alongside Night was Oct. 23, 2014 in Spokane, WA. The movie is not yet available on Blu-Ray, DVD, VOD or streaming. As of now the movie is two-and-a-half months past its last public availability, awaiting general release via wider theatrical and the above-mentioned home-entertainment media later this year.
So how is it that within the last ten days — two-and-a-half months after its last screening — there have been 75 IMDb ratings for the movie, a dozen of them posted in the last 24 hours, 22 of them from non-U.S. users — and 59 — 78.7 — of these votes are the lowest possible rating of 1 out of 10? This gives Alongside Night an IMDb rating of 2.4 out of a possible 10 and gives a false-flag impression that an audience that has seen the movie has rejected it. The intent is an attempt to discourage further distribution by giving potential vendors the impression there’s no market for it.
This trolling of Alongside Night on IMDb is nothing new for the movie’s writer/producer/director — me. It follows from the same action against my previous movie, Lady Magdalene’s, by anonymous attackers with multiple sock-puppet accounts.
I haven’t been subject to lethal terrorism such as the firebombing then shootings at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, but there are Internet-based opponents to my libertarian-themed film-making who have had me in their sights for years and they’re still at work.
I don’t have the resources to penetrate their anonymity and stop them as was done with the cyberattacks on Sony for producing The Interview.
Alongside Night portrays the Dark Net as an asset for free speech and free communications. Is there no one at Anonymous to out these anti-libertarian trolls?
Addendum January 15, 2015:
I wrote to IMDb’s Help Desk:
Spoofed IMDb ratings for Alongside Night (2014)
by – firstname.lastname@example.org (5 Jan 2015 12:52:16 PM)
Alongside Night is not yet in general release and has only had limited screenings via TUGG, the last of which was October 23, 2014. The movie has never been available on DVD or VOD or any streaming service. Yet, in the last week, 56 IMDb ratings have appeared, 41 of them a rating of “1”, and 8 of them from outside the United States where the movie has never been seen.
These IMDb ratings have appeared at the same time trolling of the IMDb message board for Alongside Night has resumed
If IMDb has any interest in making sure its ratings are by individuals who have seen the movie these ratings are clearly from anonymous spoof accounts from trolls who wish to launch a cyberattack on the movie to create an artificially low rating that can be quoted across the Internet.
I request that IMDb investigate the accounts posting these spoofed ratings and remove any rating that can not be linked to a real person.
J. Neil Schulman
Managing Member, Alongside Night LLC
IMDb’s Help Desk responded:
Re: Spoofed IMDb ratings for Alongside Night (2014)
by – IMDb Help Desk (7 Jan 2015 01:52:15 PM)
Thank you for contacting us.
Once we determine that a film has been completed and released (or screened at least once) we allow users to vote on it.
Based on our information, the film has been screened at least once. Therefore we can’t remove or block votes for it.
Please be aware that individual votes have different weight on the user rating, and that our voting system is design to detect attempts to stuff the ballot and adjust the rating accordingly when generating the weighted average for a title.
For more information, please refer to http://www.imdb.com/help/show_leaf?votestopfaq
The IMDb Help Desk
IMDb has zero interest in honest user ratings for movies. They defend anonymous sock-puppet trolling of their ratings. Nobody interested in accuracy in media should give IMDb’s ratings any credibility whatsoever.
— J. Neil Schulman, January 15, 2015
See my earlier articles here:
Reason Magazine editor Matt Welch, also one of the regulars on Fox Business Network’s libertarian-themed evening show The Independents, writes at Reason‘s Hit & Run Blog about those using the Twitter hashtag #JeSuisCharlie, “So no, we’re all not Charlie—few of us are that good, and none of us are that brave.”
I wrote, produced, directed, and played a comical jihadi in a suspense comedy feature film titled Lady Magdalene’s, starring Nichelle Nichols who played Lt. Uhura on Star Trek: The Original Series.
Lady Magdalene’s won three film-festival awards: “Best Cutting Edge Film” at the 2008 San Diego Black Film Festival, “Audience Choice – Feature-Length Narrative Film” at the 2008 Cinema City International Film Festival held on the Universal Hollywood Citywalk, and “Special Jury Prize for Libertarian Ideals” at the 2011 Anthem Film Festival/FreedomFest held at Bally’s Las Vegas. I accepted this last award with Rand Paul in the audience.
The movie tells the story of federal agents on the trail of a domestic al-Qaeda plot thought by Homeland Security agents as a potential nuclear attack on Hoover Dam and centered around a Nevada Brothel. In addition to Nichelle Nichols in the title role, characters in the movie include the Director of al-Qaeda, a young American jihadi working for him, and one of his agents, a beautiful Persian woman embedded as a prostitute at the brothel. The character I play, Ali the American, is played as a convert to Islam who’s a comical dupe.
Anyone think this movie might possibly be offensive to Muslims?
The movie has been trolled so badly it has an IMDb rating of 1.8 out of 10. The trolls engineered a cyberattack that trashed all Wikipedia articles about me and the movie. When Lady Magdalene’s was on sale as a DVD and streaming video on Amazon.com the user reviews were so badly trolled by sock-puppet accounts that I decided to pull the movie from sale and posted it for free on YouTube, where as of this writing it’s received 85,832 views.
The cyberattacks on me have slopped over to my new movie, Alongside Night, where sock-puppet accounts are now giving the movie lowest-possible spammed ratings with the hope of preempting the movie’s pending general release. News flash: it won’t work.
Of course Matt Welch doesn’t hold up Lady Magdalene’s as a shining example of a libertarian filmmaker not allowing himself to be daunted by possible retribution and standing up for free artistic expression, even though Nick Gillespie interviewed me at FreedomFest about the movie in 2011.
Matt Welch: I’ve been “Charlie” for years. When will the so-called libertarian media notice?
Sony Pictures Entertainment/Columbia Pictures
Directors: Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen
Writers: Dan Sterling (Screenplay) (Story) | Seth Rogen (Story) | Evan Goldberg (Story)
Producers: Evan Goldberg | Seth Rogen | James Weaver
Starring James Franco, Seth Rogen, Aaron Rapaport, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park, Diana Bang
There’s a joke supposedly told in the Soviet Union during the Cold War in which an American is trying to explain to a Russian about freedom of speech. “Here in the United States,” says the American to the Russian, “I can freely denounce the President of the United States, the U.S. Congress, and the Supreme Court of the United States, and no one will arrest me, send me to prison, or threaten my family.”
“We have the exact same freedom of speech in the USSR,” replies the Russian proudly. “I can also freely denounce the President of the United States, the U.S. Congress, and the Supreme Court of the United States, and no one will arrest me, send me to prison, or threaten my family.”
Apparently, though, making a comedy satirizing a foreign dictator is not as simple as that, as Sony Pictures Entertainment/Columbia Pictures discovered when, following official denunciations from North Korean officials, a secret organization styling itself Guardians of Peace, after hacking Sony’s corporate computers releasing embarrassing interoffice emails and capturing file copies of unreleased movies, threatened terrorism against movie theaters showing The Interview, a Sony/Columbia Pictures comedy about a CIA-driven assassination attempt on the real-world dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong-un.
Sony took the threat seriously enough first to re-edit the movie making it marginally less offensive to North Korea. Then Sony delayed the movie’s theatrical release from fall to Christmas Day. (I suggested in a tweet that as a Christmas release a movie about a political assassination would have been better titled It’s A Wonderful Death). Sony next notified the major theater chains that it would allow them to cancel the movie’s exhibition in their theaters without contractual penalties to Sony.
An outcry from free-speech advocates (my own during a December 18th interview on Russia Today’s “In the Now” program), including President Obama and George Clooney, caused Sony to make unprecedented efforts to reverse their decision, releasing the movie both on over 200 domestic theatrical screens on December 25th, as well as for rent or sale via online platforms including YouTube a day earlier.
Today I found the movie on YouTube and bought it for streaming, and after hooking up my YouTube access with the Roku box that allows me to watch Internet videos on my big plasma screen I watched it — a day before its theatrical release.
The Interview begins with a satire on the shallowness of current day American news programs that avoid hard news in favor of scandal and entertainment. I don’t think any North Korean critics noticed that. The plot then proceeds to a slapstick comedy that is more in the tradition of The Three Stooges’ short 1939 Columbia Pictures parody of Adolf Hitler, “You Nazty Spy,” than it is of Charles Chaplin’s far more elegant The Great Dictator.
You Nazty Spy
The Interview is good comedy and good political satire. In between obligatory jokes based on scatalogical bodily functions the action is actually motivated by intelligent dialogue and nuances of character. While not touching the exalted status of Stanley Kubrick masterpieces like Dr. Strangelove or A Clockwork Orange I wouldn’t hesitate to put it up with movies like Wag the Dog, Thank You for Smoking, or Team America: World Police.
It’s not a Christmas movie, but neither are other dissonant releases for the holiday season including American Sniper — but given the odd releasing pattern of this major studio film I suspect most of its views should and will continue well past its Christmas opening.
If you’re looking for a movie that aims its jabs at our own government — what the Russian during the Soviet Union era would not have been able to do without dire consequence — my own new movie Alongside Night can be booked for individual theatrical screenings right now but awaits wider release in 2015. If you want to encourage that sign this petition started before Sony reversed its decision not to release The Interview.
On July 14, 2014 — the day of the movie’s world premiere — Alongside Night star and executive producer Kevin Sorbo and author/filmmaker J. Neil Schulman sat down with Reason.TV’s Alexis Garcia for an interview. Kevin Sorbo discusses his acting career, his views on the new wave of Christian-oriented movies, and his personal beliefs. J. Neil Schulman talks about his rare opportunity as a novelist then getting the opportunity to adapt, direct, produce, and act in a movie based on his novel, and the history and ideas behind Alongside Night.
Thanks to Alexis Garcia, Reason.TV, and Nick Gillespie for providing us this unaired interview.
As an indie filmmaker I found it irresistible to watch The Chair, a ten-episode Starz series about two indie films being made from the same script by two first-time feature directors. Here’s why the series and the two resulting films were worth watching even though by my standards both directors were stuck with a script that required comedy geniuses to succeed.
Here’s the storyline, such as it is. A popular high-school student returns home for Thanksgiving from his first semester at college and the first thing that happens is his high-school girlfriend breaks up with him. Romance and hilarity ensues.
Here’s the storyline of Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing: Soldiers return home from battle. Romance and hilarity ensues.
Here’s the usual description of the long-running sitcom Seinfeld: A comedy about nothing.
Get the pattern? Comedy can be successful making people laugh by frequent gags alone. It doesn’t require Hitchcock level intrigue or plot.
YouTube star Shane Dawson, given writer Dan Schoffer’s formulaic comedy screenplay to direct, understood this instinctively and chose to make a formulaic teen comedy frontloading poop, puke, and dick jokes. He succeeded and won the $250,000 competition.
The more serious screenwriter/actress Anna Martemucci when given the Dan Schoffer formulaic comedy as her first directing job decided to make a quality character movie. But because it was much ado about nothing, there was no plot or distinctive characters for her to work with. So even though she made a far better movie by all technical standards, she lost the competition.
What do I know. I’ve made two plot-heavy indie feature films with distinctly memorable characters, neither of which has made back its production money.
Alongside Night star and executive producer, Kevin Sorbo, talks with Hot Air talk show host Ed Morrissey about Alongside Night.
“This is a movie that hopefully will wake up a few people. Once again I hope it’s not just preaching to the choir. I hope people go there and try to have an open mind and look at it and have a discussion open up after they do it.”
Alongside Night star and executive producer, Kevin Sorbo
The Ed Morrissey Show, May 22, 2014
Kevin Sorbo on Ed Morrissey Show
The “Low Budget” Alongside Night Movie has:
Executive Producer and star Kevin Sorbo, (“Dr. Martin Vreeland”) star of the #1 worldwide TV series for seven years, Hercules the Legendary Journeys; star of Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda (five-year-run and #1 in first-run syndications); star of the 2014 opening week #3 domestic box office movie hit (top 5 for 6 weeks and top 10 for 9 weeks and still in theaters at 11 weeks), God’s Not Dead; and real-life wife, actress, talk-show-host & author, Sam Sorbo, as Dr. Vreeland’s wife, Cathryn Vreeland.
Jake Busey (“President Charles Crane”), star of Contact opposite Jodie Foster and star of Starship Troopers opposite Neil Patrick Harris.
Said Faraj (“FEMA Agent Sam Shalhoub”) previous film appearance opposite Matt Damon in Green Zone; The Seige; Ghost; TV includes NCIS: Los Angeles, 24.
Tim Russ (“General Jack Guerdon”), previous film appearances in Live Free or Die Hard opposite Bruce Willis, Spaceballs opposite Mel Brooks; Star Trek: Generations; on TV star of Star Trek: Voyager (“Tuvok”) and Samantha Who? opposite Christina Applegate.
Garrett Wang (“Major Benjamin Franklin Chin”) Star Trek: Voyager (“Ensign Harry Kim”)
Gary Graham (“FEMA Director Lawrence Powers”) previously starring as Detective Matthew Sikes in five Fox Network TV films Alien Nation: The Udara Legacy; Alien Nation: The Enemy Within; Alien Nation: Millennium; Alien Nation: Body and Soul; Alien Nation: Dark Horizon; and Fox TV series, Alien Nation; Star Trek Enterprise (“Ambassador Soval”); plus episodes of numerous other network series.
Mara Marini (“Sgt. Eve Kropotkin AKA ‘Candy’”) previous film Lady Magdalene’s (“Nurse Gretchen”) opposite Nichelle Nichols; recurring on Parks & Recreation as “Brandi Maxxxx” opposite Amy Poehler and Rob Lowe.
Valence Thomas (“Major Benjamin Harper AKA ‘The Tzigane'”) Men in Black 3; Notorious; Cadillac Records; TV appearances include Blue Bloods and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
Appearing as themselves: Dr. Ron Paul; Adam Kokesh; Jordan Page; Dr. David D. Friedman as the King of Sweden
Produced, Written, and Directed by J. Neil Schulman, author of 12 books with endorsements from Nobel-laureate Milton Friedman, Anthony Burgess, Dr. Ron Paul, Glenn Beck, Michael Medved (Alongside Night, 1979); Charlton Heston, Dennis Prager (Stopping Power, 1994); Robert A. Heinlein, Colin Wilson, Gregory Benford, Michael Medved (The Rainbow Cadenza, 1983); David Brin, Colin Wilson (Escape from Heaven, 2002); screenwriter of 1986 CBS Twilight Zone episode “Profile in Silver”); producer/writer/director of 2008 triple- film-festival award-winning independent feature film Lady Magdalene’s starring Nichelle Nichols; Schulman’s articles and essays have appeared in magazines and newspapers including Reader’s Digest, National Review, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times Op-Ed page, Cult Movies, Locus, Reason Magazine, Mondo Cult, Liberty, Prometheus, and OC Weekly. Not counting the many reviews of his books, Mr. Schulman has been written about in magazines and newspapers including USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Esquire, and the New York Times.
Musical film score by Daniel May with composing and performing credits in Saving Mr. Banks, Mr. Poppers Penguins, Midnight in Paris, Limitless, MacGruber, The Blind Side, Fast & Furious, Alvin and the Chipmunks, American Gangster, Borat, and many more feature films and TV series.
Film score recorded by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine in Kiev, Ukraine, conducted by Daniel May.
CGI/VFX by Chris Dawson, previous film credits include Her, Green Lantern, The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Alice in Wonderland, Titanic, and many more feature films and TV series
CGI/VFX by Thomas R. Dickens, previous film credits include 300, The Dukes of Hazzard, The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, The Chronicles of Riddick, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone, Cast Away, Stargate, Army of Darkness and many more feature films and TV series
Aerial Cinematography Unit:
A helicopter and two-remote-control-drone aerial cinematography unit used for action sequences filmed at Front Sight, Nevada and rally sequence filmed at Clark County Regional Justice Center
Live Nighttime Las Vegas Chase Sequence:
A three-vehicle nighttime chase sequence on the live-traffic streets of Las Vegas, NV
Live Fire and Action Sequences:
Live-fire pistol, tunnel, climbing, rope, and commando action sequences filmed at Front Sight, Nevada and full-auto firing range sequence filmed at The Gun Store, Nevada
Real Las Vegas Public School location
Classroom sequence, hallways, office, and exteriors filmed at Las Vegas Academy using student actors from the acting and film programs
Real shopping mall location
Underground shopping center sequences filmed at closed-off section of Boulevard Mall, Las Vegas
Live outdoor rally sequence with aerial unit
A rally sequence with 200 extras and volunteers filmed at the Clark County Regional Justice Center in Las Vegas, NV
Fremont Street Experience live action sequence
Nighttime action sequence with dialogue and multiple extras filmed at Fremont Street Experience, Las Vegas, NV
Expansive Exteriors at Homeland Security Facility
“Al Gore /Utopia Prison” live vehicle and actor sequences filmed at the Southern Nevada Water Treatment Facility
Country Club used for Kevin Sorbo speech
Kevin Sorbo speech as Dr. Vreeland filmed at DragonRidge Country Club
Real bookstore used
Rabelais Bookstore sequence filmed at Dead Poets Books, Las Vegas
Organizations providing props, footage, and other promotional consideration include AntiWar.com, The Advocates for Self Government, The Heartland Institute, the Cato Institute, Reason.TV
Full credits and thanks at http://www.dujpepperman.com/jesulu/alongsidenight/AN_Credits.html
Since I got my Netflix subscription two months ago I’ve been immersing myself in documentaries. I’ve watched documentaries suggesting a partisan Republican agenda Rupert Murdoch allegedly has for Fox News (Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism), two documentaries on Sarah Palin — one pro, one con (The Undefeated, Sarah Palin: You Betcha!)– one looking at the late Andrew Breitbart (Hating Breitbart), one on Wikileaks (We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks), and — right now — one called The Billionaires’ Tea Party, suggesting that the Tea Party movement is “Astroturf” — recruiting dupes unknowingly to support the financial interests of the billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and David.
Charles and David Koch
My old friend and mentor, Samuel Edward Konkin III, was hostile to the Koch brothers because they promoted the Libertarian Party, which Sam — an anti-political movementist — opposed. He invented the term “Kochtopus” to attack the Kochs for what he saw as their politicization of the anti-political libertarian movement, decades before segments of the American left decided on the Koch brothers as their nemesis.
I appreciate Sam’s reasons for purist anti-politics, but I never agreed with him that participation in politics as a form of harm-minimization is always counter-productive. I often cited Lysander Spooner’s arguments in No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority that participation in politics could be a form of self-defense, and later reversed the anti-political argument that ballots were just another form of bullets to argue that if I could carry a gun in self defense I could mark a ballot in self defense.
Sam and I used to have long discussions in which he would invoke the strategy of encouraging crisis as a form of catalyzing revolution, and Taylor Caldwell’s 1952 novel, The Devil’s Advocate, often came up in these discussions, since in that novel conscious acceleration of totalitarian controls beyond the rate a public could be convinced to accept is a conscious strategy of fomenting rebellion. I guess, compared to my old friend, I’m just a wuss when it comes to revolution. I want merely to convince people using sweet reason and exposing villainy, not manipulate people by fomenting outrage and fear. I want to shock the conscience, not the adrenal glands.
The Billionaires’ Tea Party, if accurate at all, shows Koch money being invested in many foundations, think tanks, and political action groups that would not have thrived or been as effective without their money. I can’t see how this is evil. I have never received a dime of Koch money yet I agree with them that the so-called scientific “consensus” that anthropogenic global warming is a worldwide crisis-in-making is a politically-cobbled megafraud at the level of Soviet Lamarckism or Nazi racial theories. So if Koch Oil is funding political opposition to this fraud because policies based on this horseshit impacts their business negatively, I agree with the Kochs not because they’re paying me to agree but because this poor artist thinks the oil billionaires are correct.
I wrote my novel, Alongside Night, in the 1970’s and it was published in 1979. The only financing I got from anyone other than my parents was a $300 gift from family friends, Herman and Molly Geller, which paid my Long Beach, California rent for the three months I needed to complete my first-draft manuscript. To the best of my knowledge the Gellers were communists — whether or not “card carrying” I never knew. But I do know that historically communists have supported novelists, musicians, and filmmakers a lot more than conservatives and libertarians. David Koch, who provided millions of dollars to refurbish New York City’s performing-arts mecca, Lincoln Center, is a high-profile exception.
Over the past three years I wrote, produced, and directed my feature-film adaptation of my novel Alongside Night and it’s now available for play in American movie theaters. The movie was mostly financed by Patrick A. Heller, an ideological libertarian who heads up Liberty Coin Service.
Before I ran into Pat Heller I separately asked both of the Koch brothers, Charles and David, for financing to make the movie; Charles ignored my email and David turned me down.
Neither has any of the institutions shown in a chart in The Billionaires’ Tea Party supported the production or so-far the distribution of my movie. I’ve sent out emails to Matt Kibbe at FreedomWorks and Joel Cheatwood at Glenn-Beck’s TheBlaze asking for strategic marketing partnerships between their organizations and my pro-liberty movie and I’ve been ignored. I’ve gotten nowhere with the Campaign for Liberty and its youth wing, Young Americans for Liberty; nor with Students for Liberty. I thought — and still think — that Alongside Night is uniquely focused in dramatizing a pro-freedom worldview that these organizations say they also hold, so the empty echoes of my own voice asking to join forces is surprising to me.
But then why do I also have to listen to voices to my left that class me with a right-wing that evidently wants nothing to do with me either?
Is being a truly anti-political libertarian so far off out of the Talking Points War between conservatives and liberals that there’s no place for my voice?
This is not a theoretical question for me. It’s a pressing matter of whether there is any organization out there that will embrace Alongside Night as a means of coalescing a vibrant libertarian movement in the future.
But in the meantime, at least know that if you think I made Alongside Night to advance a profit agenda of some oil billionaires, the oil billionaires aren’t having any of it.
A recent article referring to my forthcoming in 2014 movie, Alongside Night, as a “low budget film” frustrates me, knowing that the major studio blockbuster creates in both movie-going audiences and film writers expectations regarding film quality. Labeling an indie film such as mine “low budget” before an audience has even seen it in a movie theater perpetuates prejudices against independent films, and gives the establishment movie studios a powerful weapon against an entire industry of indie filmmakers like me in competition with them for theater venues, retail display space, and — ultimately — the gray matter behind the eyes of its audiences.
It’s been an ongoing trend that the major movie studios now produce only a few ultra-high-budget movies each year. This works to reduce entertainment choices available to movie patrons — a gap we indie filmmakers try to fill in.
The studio blockbusters that dominate movie multiplexes have production costs in nine figures including “A-List” actors being paid in eight figures, plus armies of visual and special effects artists, stunt teams, art departments, and locations. With virtually unlimited resources available to one of these productions the only practical limit of what can be shown to an audience is in the imagination of the filmmakers — and unlimited resources forecloses the market on a whole lot of talent.
The running joke is today’s independent filmmaker’s total production budget is about the same as the catering budget for one of these studio films. It may not be a joke.
There’s no question that some tremendously entertaining movies can be made with these megabudgets. Just to mention two of recent memory that I enjoyed are the science-fiction movie Gravity and the latest installment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit trilogy.
Studio produced blockbusters like these have the upside for a movie audience that when all elements come together a unique work of art and entertainment gives an audience an unforgettable experience, like drinking a 50-year-old single-malt scotch, or a night in bed with a $100,000 call girl, or a visit to the International Space Station.
The downside for an audience is that it threatens to ruin any movie experience less breathtaking and eliminates diversity of artistic vision and individual dissent. Movies are a form of theater — an incarnation of storytelling — and what the blockbuster often does is replace character-driven storytelling and performance-driven plots with minimal intellectual content that can only be brought out through the use of words.
Gravity kept me on the edge of my seat. It engaged me with the plight of its characters. But I left the movie theater with no ideas I hadn’t had when I first sat down, and had no meaningful questions left to resolve — or to talk about with anyone else — when I walked out.
Instead of appealing to our minds the infinite-budget movies feed us only every form of adrenaline-releasing action that stunt coordinators and computer artists can engineer — relentlessly. The trade-off of action moments replacing tboughtful moments deletes what the dramatic arts most needfully do: nourish our intellectual imagination and our moral sense of how to contemplate the human condition. It turns a nutritionally rich culture into the equivalent of empty calories — a high fed on snacks.
Not that independent film hasn’t tried to emulate the action blockbuster by crossing a technological threshold where a film made for a small fraction of a blockbuster’s budget can’t on occasion produce a movie with spectacular production values competitive with the studio blockbuster. The crowd-funded 2012 independent feature, Iron Sky, is as visually stunning as a studio-produced blockbuster like Steven Spielberg’s 2005 remake of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds — and with a comparable level of story-telling intensity.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding, with a 2002 opening weekend of less than $600,000 on 108 movie theater screens, was made for about $5 million. It had no A-list stars in its cast. Yet, on the basis of great writing, great directing, and great acting it earned blockbuster revenues in its theatrical distribution — well over $350 million in its worldwide box office take. The audience for this movie wasn’t looking for a rollercoaster ride. It was looking to meet characters who we wouldn’t mind spending some time with in real life, and whose struggles informed our own life challenges. It was a movie that inspired us.
Napoleon Dynamite (2004) was made for about $400,000 — the blockbuster movie’s catering budget — but with quirky writing, directing, and acting also engaged movie theater audiences with a respectable domestic box office of over $44 million. With a production cost of about ten percent of the low-budget My Big Fat Greek Wedding Napoleon Dynamite worked its magic with no known movie stars and even more severe production challenges.
And, perhaps, the all-time champion of production cost to box-office success — beating out even The Blair Witch Project — is 2007’s Paranormal Activity, produced at a cost of $15,000 and which not only earned $195 million in worldwide box-office receipts but which has spawned a series of high-earning sequels.
The legend of how this microbudget video got major theatrical distribution from Dreamworks SKG / Paramount is that it was purchased only so Steven Spielberg could remake it at a studio budget but when Spielberg screened it he decided he couldn’t remake it any better and arranged for its theatrical release.
Every time a microbudget-produced indie like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, or Napoleon Dynamite is mentioned around an establishment movie executive or critic, they will duckspeak the same talking point: these movies are as rare as a casino jackpot. They’re the lotto exception, and can’t be figured into any rational business plan.
That may be true. But what is equally true is that there is no money to pay expensive production salaries and expenses — overheaded as thousands of individual budget line items — on a low-budget independent film. These ultralow-budget nonetheless box-office-blockbuster movies are more frightening to BMW-driving, expense-account holding, Belair-home-owning movie executives than all the Zombies, alien-invading monsters, and global-warming meltdowns put together.
If movies like my own Alongside Night can win movie audiences in meganumbers without spending megabucks, the days of studio execs’ caviar lifestyle are numbered.
We indie filmmakers can give you a richer choice and a diversity of boutique movies — not the Albertson’s selection but maybe the Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods choice.
But — people — you gotta stop using the phase “low-budget” when talking about movies that give you something different, or all that you’ll ever get to see are the movies Monsanto would feed you.
Back in the seventies two novels — The Glass Inferno and The Tower — were melded into a mega-disaster movie titled The Towering Inferno.
As a thought experiment I’m going to combine two movies into one: 2012’s Flight and 2013’s The Challenger Disaster.
Both movies are about a disaster in the air ending in a crash.
Flight is about a fictitious airliner crash.
The Challenger Disaster is about the real-life investigation of the explosion, shortly after launch, that destroyed the space shuttle Challenger and killed its crew.
One of these movies is about an investigation that ultimately finds the true cause of the disaster and places fault where it is due.
The other movie is a fundamentally dishonest propaganda piece.
And, coincidentally enough, actor Bruce Greenwood plays in both movies.
So, let’s put ourselves into the plot of a fictitious combined disaster movie in which after scientist Richard Feynman proves that the cause of the Challenger explosion was launching on a day colder than the shuttle’s O-rings could properly function, the chief investigator finds vodka bottles among the shuttle wreckage and spends the rest of the investigation trying to find out if any of the crew of the Challenger was drunk at the time of the launch.
End of thought experiment.
Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie Flight. I’m going to reveal major plot points and the ending.
In Flight — a movie directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Robert Zemeckis, and with an Oscar-nominated screenplay by John Gatins — airline pilot Whip Whitaker (the always-brilliant Denzel Washington) is a raging alcoholic and cocaine user who pilots a flight while on a bender. With a blood-alcohol level three times as high as would qualify for a DUI charge behind the wheel of a car, Whip makes ultra-competent decisions demonstrating that he’s a better pilot drunk than most pilots are cold sober, and when a critical component of the aircraft fails making the aircraft’s controls useless, he nonetheless executes the radical maneuver of regaining control of his aircraft by flying it upside down until he can land it right-side-up again in a field. The maneuver works but in the crash landing two flight attendants and four passengers die, and his co-pilot has his legs crushed so that he’s unlikely ever to walk again.
Nonetheless, the plot establishes the facts that the cause of the crash was the mechanical failure which disabled the aircraft’s controls, and that Whip’s brilliant piloting skills are the only thing which saved the lives of nearly 100 passengers and crew.
The movie’s plot shows us that after the crash Whip decides to quit drinking and his resolve is only broken when it becomes evident he’s going to be scapegoated for the crash by his airline and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigator when his blood toxicology report shows he was drunk and coked up while piloting the aircraft.
At this point let me recount a story that, during the Civil War, President Lincoln received a report that the leader of the Union Army, General Ulysses S. Grant, was drunk most of the time. Lincoln is reported to have replied, “Find out what he’s drinking and send a case of it to the rest of my generals.”
We live in an age where what you put into your own body is more of a crime than what you do with it. Smoking, for many people, is more on their radar of sin than murder. Driving while intoxicated is a worse crime for many people than sending a drone into another country and killing a wedding party.
The movie Flight follows the plot formula of the old True Confessions magazines: sin and redemption.
In a critical scene near the end of the movie, Whip gets blind drunk the night before he has to testify at the NTSB hearing into the cause of the crash, and his lawyer (Don Cheadle) and union rep (Bruce Greenwood) get his drug dealer (John Goodman) to fix him up so he can testify lucidly.
At that hearing the chief NTSB crash investigator Ellen Block (Mellisa Leo) establishes that mechanical failure caused the pilots to lose control of the aircraft and using the cockpit flight recorder establishes for the record that only Whip’s brilliant piloting decision to invert the aircraft to regain control saved most of the passengers.
At this point in the movie, logic demands that she thank Whip and end the hearing.
Instead, having shown in her own presentation that the cause of the problem was mechanical and the savior of the lives was Whip, she continues her interrogation of Whip by asking him to give an opinion that two empty vodka bottles found in the airliner’s trash were consumed by the flight attendant that we in the audience knows was partying with Whip the night before the flight.
At which point, rather than lie, Whip confesses to having drunk the vodka himself.
The movie ends, true to its true-confessions formula, with a redeemed Whip in prison, having confessed to his sin of piloting an aircraft drunk and coked up — more expertly than any other cold sober pilot could have done.
In a sane society not in thrall to Puritans and Prohibitionists, Whip would have told Ellen Block, “Suppose I was intoxicated, hypothetically. In which case your own investigation demonstrates that I’m a more competent pilot drunk and coked up than any sober pilot you could have put in my place, and but for my drunken flying there would have been 100 more deaths. So go fuck yourself, you statist sow.”
Only a libertarian like me would write dialogue like this.
But it’s dumb statists who get the writing jobs in Hollywood.
More’s the pity.