Videography Canyons - Going It Alone

6/21/2013 5:47:11 PM

How social networks freed The Canyons from big-studio shackles

Digital technology has revolutionized filmmaking: what used to be an expensive process, out of reach of all but a few has become available to most people, no matter what their budget. Most mobile phones can film HD footage and DSLR cameras can capture footage that’s being used in film and high-end television productions.

Technology hasn’t just changed how films are made, though: it has also changed how they’re funded. Hollywood blockbusters still have $100 million budgets, but thanks to the internet, it’s possible to put a film together for much less. Sites such as Kicstarter have made it possible for people who wouldn’t have been able to make a film via the Hollywood route to gain funding.

Videography Canyons - Going It Alone

Videography Canyons - Going It Alone

The Film and Video category on Kickstarter has the largest number of projects on the site. However, while unknown and first-time filmmakers using Kickstarter to fund their projects is nothing new, the approach has now caught the eye of established Hollywood players.

While Hollywood financing provides huge production budgets, this money doesn’t come without strings attached. The writer and director may set out with a certain vision of how the film will pan out, but commercial influences further up the chain may prevent them from fulfilling this exactly as they’d envisioned. This could be pressure to remove material to receive a lower film classification, and so a larger audience, or to change to story entirely to make it more commercially appealing – adding a happy adding to a tragedy, for example, or not killing off a major character to increase sequel potential.

Without a studio to call the shots, filmmakers can create the film they want, rather than one paid for and sculpted by the series of accountants to maximize potential revenue. Which is exactly what Paul Schrader, Bret Easton Ellis and Braxton Pope set out to do with their film The Canyons.

Schrader wrote the scripts for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull before going on to direct with films such as American Gigolo. Bret Easton Ellis wrote the books American Psycho and The Rules of Attraction, which were made into movies. Braxton Pope has produced a number of Hollywood films and has co-founded a production company with Easton Ellis.

In late 2011, Schrader had been due to start shooting an original screenplay by Easton Ellis, but the funding fell through. Schrader emailed Easton Ellis to explain the situation, but also proposed they work on something else. ‘Perhaps a section of one of the books or a new bit mixing some characters’, Schrader wrote. ‘Given the new economics of filmmaking, I envision this as a relatively micro-budget production’.

Schrader continued: ‘Between the two of us, we could attract interesting actors and create a profile for the film via social media. It would be something that we own. We wouldn’t have to go hat in hand looking for unrealistic financing. And, most importantly, there would be no censorship’.

The social media profile for the film went so far that Schrader shared the above email – and Easton Ellis’ response on the Facebook page for The Canyons at the end of last year. Social media was also used during casting the movie, and also funding it as well. Frequent updates were posted during production, including photos form the set that were taken during filming, enabling the public to see the film as it evolved.

Open cast: Although actors with previous experience took the main roles, others were cast through open auditions on online sites such as Mobli

Open cast: Although actors with previous experience took the main roles, others were cast through open auditions on online sites such as Mobli

Schrader, Easton Ellis and Pope each put $30,000 of their own money into the project, which, while enough to just about make the movie, is peanuts by Hollywood standards. They then setup a Kickstarter project ( with the aim of raising an additional $100,000 with the promise that the additional budget wouldn’t be going into salaries: everyone was paid the $100-a-day minimum that the unions allow.

Instead, any additional funds would be spent making eth movie look better. In exchange for backing the film, members of the public could become part of the production crew, having input on casting the actors and other aspects of production. And for those backers who were prepared to part with a few thousand dollars, there were additional benefits on offer, such as training alongside Easton Ellis and his personal trainer for a week, or the engraved money clip Robert De Niro gave Schrader on the set of Taxi Driver.

While $100,000 for a movie isn’t an enormous amount, it’s still a pretty large number by Kickstarter standards. Of the 8,500 film and video projects successfully funded on Kickstarter so far, only 73 have raised more than $100,000 Luckily, the team, the concept and the additional benefits were enough to persuade 1,050 backers to donate a total of $159,000, giving the movie a $250,000 budget to play with.

The original plan was to cast the roles through the online casting sites Let It Cast ( and Mobli ( However, after Lindsay Lohan was asked to take a cameo role, she decided she wanted the lead. Easton Ellis also pushed for the male lead to go to porn actor James Deen. Despite taking the lead female role, Lohan would still get the same $100 per day fee as everyone else, although she will also get a share of the profits if the film’s a success.

Despite the lead roles going to established actors (even if one of them was moving over from a different area of film), other roles were cast through Let It Cast and Mobli. There was also a call for extras to apply directly via an email address posted on the Facebook page and Twitter account.

Tweet news: Social media channels were also used for requests, such as a call for extras

Tweet news: Social media channels were also used for requests, such as a call for extras

The film started shooting mid-July last year, and was wrapped just over a month later, with plenty of progress shots posted on the Facebook page throughout. The rough cut was completed a week later and a second cut a week after that. The announcement of each cut was accompanied by notes from Schrader, giving additional insight into the filmmaking process.

Music was next, and then teaser trailers were released in the run-up to Christmas. The original plan was to get the film into the Sundance Film Festival, but despite it initially looking promising it was rejected. The pan now, according to a Facebook update by Schrader, is a limited theatre release followed by digital distribution.

‘In a way, it’s good we’re not at Sundance’, Schrader wrote. ‘We weren’t prepared, we weren’t organized. Films enter festivals to heighten their profile. The Canyons doesn’t need to do that. We need to organize multiplatform distribution. This is not a dodge, its common sense. The film is very good. I have no qualms about that’. Of course, even a $250,000 budget is more than many aspiring filmmakers dream of. But if even seasoned Hollywood players are going down the DIY route, then it shows that if you have a strong enough idea and desire to produce your own film, it’s much more possible now.

Star names among the cast help raise the profile of an indie production, but they’re not essential to the production. Provided you can convince enough people to back your vision, you can produce a film on a shoestring budget, cast unknown actors, film it on consumer DSLR equipment and edit it on a MacBook.

The more money available, the more you can spend on the final finish and promotion, but astronomical budgets are no longer necessary if you just want to get something made and distribute it digitally.

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