Fast Chat: Edward Burns The writer, director, and actor opens up about the upsides of digital distribution and small budgets
Leading up to the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Newlyweds, you extensively tweeted about its limited budget, $9,000. I get the feeling you like shoestring budgets.
I absolutely love it. I had sort of a blessing in that my most successful film, critically and commercially, was The Brothers McMullen, which I made for $25,000 with a three-man crew and nonprofessional actors. Quite honestly, I didn’t know how to make films. I was learning how to act on the fly. And, so, I’ve always viewed that as like having a secret weapon. It’s a hard business getting independent films made and even harder making them with the studios. But if they ever kick me out of the club or they throw me in director’s jail, I can always find $25,000 to make a new film.
Is working fast on a tight budget a skill set that directors of big blockbusters have?
It’s a completely different skill set. And while I’m probably not the guy to hire for the $200 million Captain America film, the guy who made that is probably not the guy to hire to do the $9,000, run-and-gun, shoot-in-available-light New York indie film.
Your movie Purple Violets premiered exclusively on iTunes. Did the experiment work?
Yes it did work, but up to a point. What we found was when we took Purple Violets out to the marketplace, we got a distribution offer, but it was sort of this new style of distribution offer that you were getting from the specialized distribution companies where they were doing no-advance acquisitions. The back-end deals were much more favorable, where you would do a 50-50 split after they recouped their costs, but they weren’t giving you any advance on the movie. Listen: I’m not the first guy to complain about Hollywood bookkeeping, but you never see any of the profits. And the other thing happening was specialized films were dying on the vine theatrically.
Did you get inspiration from the music and television series already selling on iTunes?
Looking at those factors and seeing the numbers that some television shows were doing on iTunes—in particular Sex and the City and Grey’s Anatomy—we thought, all right, Purple Violets is similar. If the audiences are already there, watching their favorite programming on their computers, we should go after that audience where they are. Now, granted, the movie cost
$4 million, and we did not get anywhere near $4 million from those iTunes sales. But it did get a significant enough number where moving forward we sort of said to ourselves, “This looks promising. We can do this.”
You’ve been an early proponent of digital distribution, and you’re about to speak on an Advertising Week panel called “The Future of Film.” Is digital distribution the future?
No. I don’t think it’s the future of film. I think it’s a welcome new revenue stream for indies in particular—and also for the studios—but audiences still love to go sit in a crowded, dark theater, in the same way they like seeing live music or a play. There’s something about that experience that the audience is always going to want. But like the DVD was an important revenue stream, digital is another.
How often do you watch movies on your computer, or do you still go to the theater?
There’s no comparison. I probably watch five movies a week on my iPad. The only time I go to the theater is with the kids to see a kid’s movie. I wouldn’t even say it’s by choice. It’s just that there’s a certain ease with waiting two months and watching on your computer, or watching it on demand at home, which is probably two nights a week, versus schlepping to the theater. Indie filmmakers will hate me for saying this, but watching a film on demand in your own home on a flat screen—especially a small talky drama that isn’t relying on great surround sound and visual effects—is always more comfortable in your living room than in the basement at the Angelika.
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