Horror Business is a series that will profile modern horror directors through first-hand accounts of how they got their films from initial idea to the screen. We get into everything from the creative and writing processes to the business sides of producing, funding, shooting, and distributing while distilling the specific techniques, resources, and best practices from those who are making it happen in today’s horror landscape.
We spoke to producer/director Dean Devlin, about his new movie, Bad Samaritan, and his partnership with the groundbreakingly disruptive entertainment company, Legion M. Before getting to the interview itself, here are our three key takeaways for aspiring horror directors from Dean Devlin.
Dean Devlin’s Three Keys:
- Learn structure with Syd Field’s Screenwriting Workbook
- Forget ‘write what you know’ instead “write what you dream”
- You have no excuse NOT to make films
As a Hollywood producer, Dean Devlin has brought such (literal) monster hits to the screen as Independence Day, Godzilla, Stargate and The Patriot. His latest directorial effort, the suspenseful horror/thriller Bad Samaritan, was produced in partnership with Legion M; the world’s first fan-owned entertainment company. Legion M funds its films by connecting filmmakers with fans who invest directly in the movies themselves. The company takes the Kickstarter-style crowdfunding approach to a whole new level by introducing equity into the equation; when fans donate to films on Legion M they actually OWN part of the movie. Through this model, Legion M has produced such films as the kaiju comedy, Colossal, the upcoming Sundance-acclaimed shocker, Mandy, starring Nicolas Cage, and Icons: Face to Face, a VR interview series with Kevin Smith and Stan Lee.
The minimum investment is $100 and Legion M’s ultimate goal is to reach a million members and thus have hundreds of millions of dollars to invest in projects along with a million fans to support them. The guiding philosophy behind Legion M is that entertainment companies belong in the hands of fans instead of with Wall Street and by democratizing the green-light process, fans can veer Hollywood off of its stale trajectory of repetitive, over-budgeted reboots, remakes and sequels, and more towards the fresh-thinking and unique storytelling that made us all fall in love with movies in the first place.
This notion of reinvigorating Hollywood’s pipeline with more original films and backing them through the hearts and wallets of fans was particularly resonant to Devlin who dove head first into a project with Legion M shortly after learning of their existence. As unlikely as a partnership between an accomplished Hollywood titan like Devlin and an ambitious upstart like Legion M may seem, their relationship is indicative of larger trends affecting Hollywood as a whole. We spoke to Devlin about Bad Samaritan, his partnership with Legion M, and what their unique production model may mean for the future of filmmaking.
Dread Central: What prompted you to start your own production company and what did you do differently with Electric Entertainment?
Dean Devlin: When the studios all got bought by larger corporations there was a feeling that if you’re going to spend a lot of money making a movie you need to know there is a preexisting audience that’s going to go see it. So there’s been this attempt to systematize the process of making movies and the problem is that if every movie is based on something else you already experienced, eventually it’s going to feel like kissing your sister … Under this philosophy they never would have made Star Wars or Indiana Jones or E.T. or Terminator! A lot of great franchises started because someone had a crazy idea that they thought was nuts and someone took a gamble on it. The studios originally said they wouldn’t make Independence Day unless they could call it War of the Worlds. There are some great franchises that are based on previous stuff, but as a recipe for the industry, it’s dangerous. The proof is that every year our (movie theater) attendance goes down … we’re losing people’s interest and it’s sad. There’s something very special and magical about the theatrical experience and it feels like it’s dying.
DC: I think that horror in particular is best as a shared experience in a theater.
DD: The great thing about horror movies is that they have been greatly over-performing at the box office because horror fans know that experiencing a horror movie in the movie theater is very different than watching that movie at home. When you’re in the theater with a room full of strangers and you’re all facing your fears together in a dark room, there is this collective catharsis that happens that is completely unique to scary movies and it’s a real reason to go to the movie theater.
DC: I just saw Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, which is a total gore-fest and a real treat to watch in a theater with an audience … by the end I thought to myself, that would have still been great to have watched at home, but watching with an audience made it exponentially more fun!
DD: It’s not just the gasps, it’s usually the laughter right after the gasps, because people are embarrassed that they gasped in the first place so they laugh. I must have read over 200 tweets about people saying that they spilled popcorn while watching Bad Samaritan. I’ll take that over an Oscar any day of the week! Having popcorn thrown in your lap from the guy sitting next to you makes me feel like I did my job.
DC: How did you end up working with Legion M?
DD: If any studio were to put out Bad Samaritan, even a smaller studio, they would have spent three times the money that we had on P&A (a film distribution term for Prints & Advertising). And it’s pretty much impossible to go to the movies today without the proper amount of advertising dollars.
DC: The standard minimum budget is 15 million, right?
DD: Minimum! We didn’t have a third of that, so we were trying to reach out to people in unconventional ways and the thing I loved about Legion M and why I think they’re going to be incredibly successful, is that rather than being a slave to Wall Street, they are at the mercy of their investors and their investors are fans and I think that is sadly lacking in our business right now. We care more about what the guys on Rotten Tomatoes say and we’ve forgotten about the audience. We need to give them a voice again, and Legion M does that in a big way. So I loved what they were doing and they loved the movie so I said this would be a great chance for us to work together and experiment and it was such a great collaboration, it was just so much fun. We’re now figuring out what our next several projects are going to be.
DC: It sounds like they’re encouraging filmmakers to engage audiences on more of a grassroots level which you’ve been outspoken about because your initial career success was very attributable to grassroots efforts such as creating the first ever movie website for Stargate and engaging with fans at Comicon way before anybody was even taking about Comicon.
DD: In those days they were called ‘Star Trek conventions.’
DC: You’ve clearly observed the evolution of fandom over long periods of time before it was celebrated the way it is today and it sounds like Legion M is encouraging grassroots engagement with the fans on that same level as you were doing early in your career.
DD: Totally. They want the voice of the fans to be as important if not more important than critics or studio executives … because if not, we’re not going to get the diversity of films we used to have and when that stuff dies off, the whole eventizing of going to the movies becomes more and more ghettoized, which means it’s only going to be about the 200 million dollar superhero franchise … and the industry as a whole will suffer.
DC: Today seems like a new era of filmmaking where there’s been a large creation of opportunities for new directors with VOD and even Kickstarter. As a producer, what are the trends that you are seeing in today’s Hollywood that aspiring directors should take note of when breaking in?
DD: It feels like the entire industry is moving toward the Netflix (VOD) model. This is both good and bad for filmmakers. Unless Netflix figures out how to control movie theaters themselves, it could mean the end of theatrical releasing as we know it. But, as a young filmmaker, it means there are going to be more and more places that can distribute your film. I think the greatest thing about being a filmmaker today is that you have access to incredibly high quality tools that the previous generations didn’t have. So there’s nothing to stop you from just making a film. Steven Soderbergh just did an entire feature film on his iPhone. So my advice to filmmakers would be to go make films. You have no excuse for not doing it and the more you do them the better you’ll get at it and if you’re any good at it, people are going to notice it. And you have distribution avenues at your fingertips. You can put anything you want on YouTube or Vimeo or Facebook and see if it catches on. I have not yet met the genius director who didn’t get a shot. If you’re talented and you make interesting stuff, somebody is going to take notice eventually.
DC: What are the future implications for a company like Legion M as far as the fan-backed, equity-based studio model? What do you think that is going to look like in five to ten years from now?
DD: Let’s say they get to that million-member goal; with a million investors, they could finance a 100 million dollar movie. That’s a truly game-changing event. And if that hundred million dollar movie performs well, the way hundred million dollar movies can perform, each one of those investors will make a lot of money.
DC: What kinds of films do you think Hollywood is really ready for that we haven’t seen yet?
DD: Movies like Baby Driver for instance, I think there can be real innovation within the standard action movie and that’s just not being explored … I found that movie to be completely original and really exciting and fun and we don’t have enough of that. I think there’s a whole swath of movies between 15 and 80 million dollars that just aren’t made anymore.
DC: Blumhouse has been going in a great direction with their Corman-like model of super-low budgets and streamlined production infrastructures, which then allows them to take more risks on the movies themselves because it’s not as big of an investment for the studio.
DD: Jason (Blum) is a really clever guy who really cares about his movies. I think where these things have failed is when businessmen come in and go ‘oh the kids will like this.’ I don’t think that ever works, you need someone in charge who genuinely has passion for the movies they’re making and Jason clearly does … They’re very tight on their budgets which I think is smart. We live in a time where we don’t need to be spending the kind of money that we spend on movies for the most part. If you can make movies at the right price, I think that’s the way that we’ll revive our industry.
DC: So it all begins and ends with passion?
DD: Good filmmaking comes from passion. Sometimes they’re brilliant people, sometimes they’re dopey people, but they’re people who really care about the movies they’re making…they have that passion for it and occasionally that passion can become infectious and then other people share it.
DC: As a horror director, what scared you as a child that still scares you to this day?
DD: I had actually forgotten about it until David Tennant brought it up the other day, but the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was one of the most terrifying characters I had ever seen as a kid. That one definitely stayed with me. But I grew up on the early Brian De Palma movies like Carrie, and Dressed to Kill, and Phantom of the Paradise is still my favorite movie of all time.
DD: You have to find the right cut. The original movie came out and it was brilliant. Later he did Carrie which was a huge hit so the studio decided to rerelease The Phantom of the Paradise but recut it to make it a horror movie more like Carrie, and they cut out a lot of the humor and it didn’t work as well. Find the original cut. It’s tough to find but it’s fantastic. It was his tribute to Hitchcock … I fell in love with Hitchcock through someone’s interpretation of Hitchcock. I never actually watched the Hitchcock movies until I had seen the Brian De Palma movies. I wanted to see where he got his inspiration from.
DC: Was there a particular movie that was your turning point that made you say ‘I’m getting into this business’?
DD: Well the movie that really made me want to get into the business was the original Star Wars. I was 14 years old and I was number nine in line for the very first showing at the Chinese Theater and when that first spaceship came overhead I thought ‘that’s cool’ and then the other spaceship that followed flew overhead, and it just kept coming and coming and coming … by the time that shot was over I knew what I wanted to do for a living.
DC: What is the most common bad advice you hear being given to aspiring directors?
DD: Write what you know. Yes you should draw from experience and write about things that you have knowledge on, but unless you have actually been in a worldwide alien invasion, you couldn’t write about it. So I say write what you dream.
DC: Spielberg religiously watches three specific movies before he embarks on any new project: The Searchers, Seven Samurai, and It’s a Wonderful Life. Do you have any similar rituals before you start on a new movie?
DD: I don’t but there are certain movies that no matter what time of day they’re on I cannot change the channel. One is Enter the Dragon, and the other is Tombstone. It can be three in the morning and if either of those films are on, I’m watching!
DC: For me it’s Kill Bill and The Godfather.
DD: Ahh, The Godfather’s a very special thing. I forced my entire company to watch it because I found out that the young employees had never seen it.
DC: Damn millennials. There are so many books on filmmaking and screenwriting and the majority of them are useless. Were there any specific books or programs that were formidable for you in the development of your career?
DD: For the writing it was the Syd Field Screenwriter’s Workbook. That really taught me structure better than anything I had ever read before or since, and I used it on my early films extensively. I really recommend that for understanding structure and I think structure is the most important part of filmmaking.
DC: Do you have a favorite scary movie?
DD: Without a doubt it’s Rosemary’s Baby. Nothing freaked me out like that did.
DC: Dean this was a whole lot of fun, thank you for your time!
DD: You bet!