For the last five years, VFX-savvy filmmakers trying to break through the Hollywood logjam have been making proof-of-concept short films to communicate their ideas for original sci-fi movies. But very few of these projects have managed to escape from development hell and make it onto a big screen in a studio system that is increasingly focused on branded content and pre-existing concepts.
Last week, former Warner Independent executive Polly Johnsen came on to produce “The Garden” under her WB-based Polymorphic Pictures banner. A sci-fi reimagining of “Paradise Lost” that cost only $30,000, “The Garden” is a proof-of-concept short that came with a feature screenplay written by director E.B. Rhee and Aaron Strongoni, giving it a leg up in terms of development. However, the feature adaptation isn’t set up at Warner Bros. yet because Johnsen plans to package the film with talent before bringing in a studio or other financier.
“Proof-of-concept shorts are another tool in the arsenal,” Johnsen told TheWrap. “There’s so much money involved that people want a little assurance that this might be something that makes sense.”
“Even though you may have a studio deal, you still have to look at alternatives to get these movies made. Our writer is attached to direct the feature and I don’t think that would happen at the budget level Warners would be interested in,” Johnsen said. “That’s not to say they wouldn’t be excited down the road with the right package. I just haven’t brought it to them yet. Studios can’t make movies for less based on their infrastructure, because once it’s a Warner Bros. or Paramount movie, the price tag goes up to compensate for everyone.”
Proof-of-concept videos can serve as calling cards for Hollywood newcomers — but offer some of the same pitfalls as more traditional entrees to studios. “Shorts are a really amazing viable path for young filmmakers to break into the business,” said IAM Entertainment’s Scott Glassgold, who has been involved in selling several high-profile short films to studios. “The fact that shorts get optioned but not converted into films can be said about every book, script and remake that gets announced each day.”
Young filmmakers have long used short films to make a name for themselves and break into the Hollywood ranks. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” was based on his 1988 mockumentary “The Dirk Diggler Story,” while Jared Hess’ “Napoleon Dynamite” grew out of his 2003 black-and-white short “Peluca.” Even last year’s awards darling “Whiplash” was based on a short film from wunderkind Damien Chazelle.
But those are very different kinds of films than the VFX-driven sci-fi shorts that have stalled out throughout town with increasing frequency since the days when Sony greenlit Neill Blomkamp’s modestly budgeted 2009 blockbuster “District 9” on the basis of his six-and-a-half-minute short “Alive in Joburg.”
20th Century Fox has let go of Jesus Orellana’s post-apocalyptic tale “Rosa,” while Warner Bros. quietly peeled director Stephan Zlotescu’s “True Skin” off its development slate. The rights to both projects reverted back to the filmmakers, which isn’t uncommon when it comes to VFX-driven shorts.
Elsewhere around town, Ricardo de Montreuil’s viral sensation “The Raven” is no longer considered an active project at Universal. The property attracted Mark Wahlberg and Liam Hemsworth before Gerard Butler attached himself to the lead role in 2013, though not much has happened since.
That’s because for every low-budget hit like “This Is the End,” which was based on the Seth Rogen-Jay Baruchel short “Jay and Seth vs. the Apocalypse,” there’s a big-budget flop like “Pixels,” which will likely lose tens of millions of dollars for Sony after factoring in marketing costs.
“‘Pixels’ is an example of a short that sold without a script, and the film got made,” Glassgold said. “Regardless of whether or not it was a success, it’s an example of the underlying material of a short serving as the blueprint of a feature film.”
“Pixels” is also an example of a studio taking a high-profile short film — in this case Patrick Jean’s “Pixels” — and handing it over to a proven A-list director in Chris Columbus rather than trusting the original filmmaker.
New Line and producer James Wan, on the other hand, are in production on “Lights Out,” a horror film directed by David Sandberg who made the original short on which the feature is based.
“We’re not going to give the reins of a massive franchise to a new director. That tends to be the issue with these kinds of things,” one major studio executive told TheWrap. “There’s also not much proof that scripts can be generated from these things that are appropriately good enough.”
With “True Skin,” insiders suggest that Warner Bros. optioned the short film intending to make a $200 million movie — an enticing possibility for a young filmmaker. But at the end of the day, the short film’s heart and soul was hand-crafted and felt like something to be marveled at because it was made for such little money. “To be a $200 million film is not necessarily organic,” said one insider.
The “True Skin” filmmakers got the rights back and Gary Hall is now working with Zlotescu on a new script that will allow him to complete his vision.
In the case of “The Raven,” the project came very close to getting made, going before Universal’s greenlight committee twice but coming up short each time.
At one point, Chad St. John was doing a polish on Justin Marks’ script and Gold Circle was onboard to produce and finance the film with Butler starring, but as one insider described the situation, “We could never push through — partly because Universal’s greenlight process under Adam Fogelson involved a much larger committee than it does now, but also because it wasn’t a sure thing. It wasn’t undeniable, and with a baby director, you don’t have any clout to push it through. For every ‘District 9,’ there are a bunch of ‘District 7s’ you’ve never heard of.”
De Montreuil recently wrapped his English-language debut “Low Riders” for Universal, Blumhouse and Brian Grazer, and if that film works, it’s possible “The Raven” could get a new lease on life at the studio.
De Montreuil’s struggle to get “The Raven” off the ground may prove to be a valuable experience, since it led to another opportunity. Sometimes, studios option short films simply to establish a relationship with an up-and-coming filmmaker.
20th Century Fox picked up Wes Ball’s animated short “Ruin” and one month later, the studio gave him its young-adult franchise “The Maze Runner.” Similarly, when Fox optioned “Rosa,” the studio offered Orellana its futuristic Zorro movie and an animated project. Orellana turned down both opportunities, but he’s another example of a filmmaker who the studio wanted to help grow.
Some believe it’s safer for a young filmmaker to start with a well-known brand like “The Maze Runner” or “Zorro” before they tackle an unbranded short film concept. Fede Alvarez is a good example of that strategy.
Alvarez’s short film “Panic Attack!” was set up with Sam Raimi producing, and even though a feature version never came to fruition, that deal set up Alvarez to direct the 2013 “Evil Dead” remake and the upcoming horror-thriller “A Man in the Dark,” both produced by Raimi. Now that Alvarez has a track record, “Panic Attack!” could come together down the line.
“A visual effects short is not something that happens overnight, because you’re inherently talking about a true passion project. It takes an inordinate amount of focus, determination and sacrifice,” Glassgold said. “I’ve seen marriages fall apart and credit card bills stack up, all in service of making a short.”
The genre can also be an obstacle for studios. “With sci-fi, it’s hard,” Johnsen noted. “Proof-of-concept allows people to visualize the actual movie, see that world and get a better handle on it. But the studios make those kinds of movies very expensively and it doesn’t always pan out with the filmmaker. The kind of filmmaker who’s going to make a short film isn’t necessarily the type of filmmaker who does well in the studio system.”
Lately, studios have tried to reverse-engineer the development process, starting with intellectual property and working backwards. Johnsen helped shepherd the “Harry Potter” franchise at Warner Bros. and fears that in today’s climate, she’d have a hard time setting up J.K. Rowling’s book, which wasn’t an immediate sensation.
“Everything gets stuck in development,” she said. “It’s hard to get anyone to pull the trigger on anything. I guarantee we wouldn’t have been able to set up ‘Harry Potter’ today without a writer, because it’s hard to get a book set up until they become ‘Eat Pray Love.’ Unless it’s based on a superhero or emoji that people can wrap their heads around, it’s hard. Look at ‘300.’ No one could make head or tails of that script, but Zack Snyder came in with his visualization for what that was and turned it around.”
Glassgold said that a good script is important, but noted that in any given year, only 10 percent of the spec scripts that sell actually get made, if that. “When a short film sells, it’s a bit more high-profile because it’s tangible. The whole industry can watch them in a few minutes and critique them, whereas 99 percent of specs don’t get read by everybody in town,” he said. “When there isn’t a script in place, you’re selling a visual touchstone and a high concept, and I think a short lends itself to a tremendous uniqueness. I feel like this is one of the last remaining inspired things studios do.”
The bias against original material isn’t universal, but it seems to be widespread — and growing. “Certain studios won’t do anything that isn’t branded,” a veteran producer told TheWrap, citing Tom Cruise’s “Edge of Tomorrow” as an example of a great, original movie featuring a major movie star that only reinforced Hollywood’s shift towards established brands. “Five years ago, the emphasis on brands was materializing, but it wasn’t as crystallized as it is today.”
Other examples of high-profile shorts that are in development around town include Mischa Rozema’s “Sundays” at Warner Bros., Saman Kesh’s “Controller” at 20th Century Fox with Shawn Levy’s 21 Laps producing and Ruairi Robinson’s “Levithan” at Fox with Simon Kinberg producing and Neill Blomkamp executive producing. Those three short films can be seen below along with “Panic Attack.”
Watch the movies competing in this year’s ShortList Film Festival now:
(The winner will be announced Tuesday night during TheWrap’s ceremony at YouTube Space LA.)