Behind the Scenes

KCS-Cinematic-NovDec13The state of filmmaking and watching is an ever-moving target. There are the concerns about filmmakers, even those with heavy-hitting last names like Spielberg and Lucas, struggling to get Hollywood to back their projects. Then there are concerns that the studios are pricing themselves out of the market because they expect all cinema houses to have digital projectors. That in turn forces the theaters to charge $16 for a popcorn and soda combo. And if you want to catch a new release in the theater, do so on the first week because if the box office returns aren’t high enough, the film will have a short theater life and the hope is to capture those dollars in rentals, movie purchases and overseas distributors.

Filmmaker and film professor Mitch Brian agrees the problems start at the top, “The studios are well-financed arms of massive corporations so by demanding theaters to go digital they know they are pricing many small theaters out of the business. They want to control all aspects of the industry and are in a business model that demands their movies make hundreds of millions of dollars just to break even. They spend because they can. It is one of the few things Hollywood can still do better than anybody else.” Brian is joined by fellow film professors Lyn Eliot and Kevin Willmott in teaching film studies and continuing their film art form in the metropolitan area.

Film critic and aficionado Bob Butler says the other significant plus and minus, in the big picture, is the international market. “Those films that fail in America often make it internationally. They are the films with sex, violence and action. The downside is that while these films transcend cultures, we start seeing more films crafted in big, predictable patterns which doesn’t allow for much room for the independent filmmaker and his voice. The upside is that the bigger films keep Hollywood going and that allows the decision-makers to give us a movie out of the usual patterns from time
to time.”

For Kansas City audiences and filmmakers, being in the Heartland has a few benefits. Within the metropolitan community, several film organizations support and nurture directors, screenwriters, actors and production crew. Some of the groups include the Independent Filmmakers Coalition of Kansas City, Film Society of Greater Kansas City, Kansas City Women in Film and Television, CinemaKC and Films For Action KC.

With the Film Commission of Kansas City, Board Chairwoman Heather Laird, who leads her own casting company and directs, has been serving as the de facto film commission. “We have not had a film commission supported by the city in about 10 years,” she says. “With no film commission, someone needs to answer questions. As chair, I am the one who gets the phone calls and the e-mails. We run the gamut of experience on our volunteer board so I draw on them to help with the questions I get. Often television and commercial production are the areas of interest.”

Several times a week, they are fielding questions from shows like America’s Got Talent. “None of us is qualified to sell Kansas City. If an America’s Got Talent came to Kansas City, think about what they would spend in the city and what the free advertising would
look like.” The organization has done some preliminary research that has shown the companies in town were impacted by more than $100 million in 2012 because of commercial and television productions.

“We aren’t a qualified research team, but the billings from our local companies look good. We do the math and extrapolating the results, we are going to take these numbers to the mayor and the city council,” she says. The organization wants to be an active part of the Mayor’s Task Force for the Arts. “I came back 21 years ago from Los Angeles and my records from production over the last 20 years show we have averaged three movies a year around the Midwest.”

Michelle Davidson Bratcher helps Laird as a member of the commission. She is also the past president of the KCWIFT. She’s also an actress, producer, morning talk show host and film writing partner with local filmmaker Patrick Rea. She sees the excitement not only in the independent short films she writes and produces, but also in the television, web series and regional commercials. “I agree that a city staff person who could sell the city would be best. Think about all the visually appealing area. There’s the Plaza, the Crossroads, and more. If we are going to stand on the idea that we are the Creative Crossroads, we need to stand up and show off our potential.”

Two local directors concur that today’s access to film equipment is good and bad. “Cameras and editing equipment is so accessible to so many people. Canon and Nikon are making cameras affordable and that puts filmmaking in many people’s hands,” says actor and director Damon Lee Patterson whose film, Art Saved My Life, has been getting great buzz around the city and film festivals.

Writer and Director Patrick Rea, whose film Nailbiter has taken many awards and found a circuit at horror film festivals, says the increase in availability of cameras saturates the market, especially in horror films. “People can make them cheaper, but that is the disconnect. It’s all about story and acting, the right lighting … I honestly think it harder than film with the digital cameras. Film is forgiving, but digital can be video-like and cheap. Directors have to work extra hard to make it look good.”

Patterson says the inundated technology also extends to how film is shown. “There are outlets like YouTube, Vimeo and the film festival market. Film can be in accessible, but at the same time, multimillion dollar studios can’t seem to take too many risks.” He thinks the playing field may even out if independent filmmakers catch up with independent music makers. “They have the grassroots marketing down. They put together sales out of their trunk and use social media in huge ways. When independent filmmakers adapt, it will open up more. There are so many more venues for musicians and fewer for movies. What makes a film venue – it’s a projector screen, a projector and a sound system. In terms of presentation, you need some chairs and perhaps a concession area.”

Rea says horror films have been some of the most successful with lower budgets and higher box office returns. “We don’t have to recoup millions. If a film builds the buzz, then it takes off. “We still root for the surprise hits like District 9. Sure people are more judicious about spending their money to go to the theater, but there will always be movies people want to see on the big screen.”

Laird says, “We will always be a film city. We have a strong production company and we have a big advertising community. Those two combined help the area. There are jobs for crews and for actors. Young and independent filmmakers are the energy that drives a really exciting filmmaking community here in Kansas City.” For bigger budget films to return, the state must reinstate tax credits. “It’s strictly economics. These filmmakers need to get the biggest bang for their buck. However, there is the television component. Sure 10 years ago, television shows didn’t go outside of L.A., but reality television has changed that. While they bring in a lot of their own crew, there is still an economic impact as they eat in our restaurants, stay in hotels and put our city on the air.”

Even through the Kansas City Convention and Visitors Association, requests come in for inquiries for B roll. “They want to know what signposts, locations and such are iconic. They want to put our city on national television. Kansas City is film friendly and ripe for the economic impact. We need someone in City Hall with the materials to convince a group to come here. That is the piece of the puzzle that is missing.”

Bratcher believes the future of film is something that many are trying to figure out. The growing film festivals are important, she says. “We need more people to continue supporting film and that audience needs to grow. It needs to be seen as another art form. People are still going to the movies to experience the collective laugh, scream or cry.”

Butler figures people will continue visiting movie theaters as the human experience from centuries past dictates that people enjoy sharing. “The history proves back to when the Greeks saw theater as a sort of religious celebration. While film is not this, there is still that group experience where a collective gasp or laugh is so much better than alone.” He believes non-mainstream movies will continue as long as an audience shouts their support and attends the movies. “Ironically theater has returned to the movie houses with Jerry Harrington at the Tivoli bringing in the videotaped plays from groups like the Royal Shakespeare Company.”

Kansas City’s film future could be what Austin, Texas has now. “There’s not an Austin school of filmmaking, but the environment allows for filmmakers to find and refine their cinematic voices.” Butler applauds the filmmakers here too. He likes Rea’s horror films. “It’s just a matter of time before a filmmaker makes his or her mark on Hollywood.”

Meagan Flynn-Mesmer, an actress, producer and director, is also active in KCWIFT. She served as vice president last year. She has taken on overseeing the annual screenplay contest.

She agrees with Butler that Austin may be the right role model for Kansas City. “We also have a terrific arts and philanthropy scene. We have progressive smaller theater such as Fishtank or The Living Room. Film could be the same here. We have filmmakers like Kevin Willmott and Patrick Rea who make sure they are using local talent. The trick is to always have a quality product and that starts with good screenplays. Then we need to keep an active film commission. It’s not necessarily about studio blockbusters, but creating good films.”•

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