Film: Spike Lee, Quentin T - now it's your turn, baby
Film schools are pointless; Britain is run by socialists; start with the money not the script. So says producer Dov S-S Simens
Thursday 03 December 1998
"I'm your remedial salt," the self-styled guru of low-budget film-making said to an eager audience of 200 aspiring film-makers attending his latest London workshop, last weekend. He makes no excuses for his "negative teaching presentation" and rejects "baby talk" (references to passion and talent - "I assume you've got that") in favour of a strictly no-nonsense approach. "You wanna make a movie?" he barks. "Shut up and write the cheque!"
The aim is to impart a dose of "entrepreneurial Yank spirit", he explains. "My approach is that the film industry is a business, not an art form - it's a combination of both, of course, but there's no one out there blatantly teaching it from a business point of view." Which is where the 48-hour film school comes in.
"There's an old adage that those who can do, while those who can't teach. I'll admit it, I failed." The revelation, an hour into day one, has the desired effect. The audience laughs, wooed into a sense of false security as Simens prepares his counter-attack - a barrage of practical advice that continues unremittingly for the next day and a half.
"I was in Hollywood long enough to know that everyone talks about making a movie, but those who really do it are the people writing cheques," he'd explained a few days earlier. "From beginning to end there are 38 basic steps to go through. Or, to put it another way, 38 cheques to write."
The film school is divided into two parts. Day one focuses on producing and directing the film; day two is about marketing it. The starting-point is not the script ("I assume you've got that, and it's the best script in the world"); it's money. "My advice is not to start by doing a budget - that's the film-school way, the right way, but it won't get you making your film, as you'll come up with a number anywhere from pounds 1m to pounds 10m. I teach the `wrong way' - start with a number you can feasibly get, then make the film."
Delivered at break-neck speed with the showmanship of a born stand-up comedian, Simens's workshop covers a dizzying range of experience and advice. Any budget can be made to work, so long as everything is accounted for. First films should be kept simple (one location, because it's cheap) and a script of 90 to 120 pages, assuming one page equals one minute of finished film.
There's advice on how to hit on the local Richard Branson for support, buying film stock ("only suckers buy retail"), selling your name and creating a mystique about your product. Marketing your movie should be about selling it to the 90 or so acquisition executives who are able to write you a cheque - of which only 12 or so are in the UK.
"There is more talent per capita in Britain than there is in the US," Simens observes. "And it's far easier to make a film here than it is in Hollywood. But there's not enough entrepreneurial spirit here to make films that make enough money." The reason? Socialism.
"The British problem is the expectation that the Government or the BBC will give funding. In America there is no government support; in fact, government is a hindrance." Another problem is British film-makers' preoccupation with the word "problem". "Whether you do the film is up to you. Whether you can sell it is up to the script," he says.
So does it work? Simens claims that over the past nine years, his tapes have inspired Quentin Tarantino to produce Reservoir Dogs, while course participants have included Spike Lee, Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi), Ed Burns (The Brothers McMullen), Paul Brooks (Leon the Pig Farmer) and Guy Ritchie (Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels). But, he admits, his approach promises no guarantee of success.
"Between 1.5 and 2 per cent will make a feature film within six months of taking my course. That may seem low, but put it in context. If you take all the graduates of film schools in the US and UK over the past four years, you will find that not one has made a feature film that's in the marketplace."
That means just three of last weekend's participants can expect to have produced their first independent feature within six to 12 months. Whether that film will be any good, or will make them any money, remains to be seen. But in Simens's book, it's not bad going. Success, he says, is up to them: "They provide the raw materials. I provide the lubrication."
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