Many people know that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon failed to get the following they wanted when they tried to make a reality show about filmmaking and market it to the masses with Project Greenlight. (The show would play for two years on HBO, to lackluster ratings, before spending a last season on Bravo. Unfortunately, despite a larger budget available for the show, a trendier concept for the movie, and the help of the creative minds behind Nightmare on Elm Street, an audience simply couldn't be raised and the third season was assured to be the last one when the Weinsteins sold Miramax.) The concept behind the show was amazing, but, for whatever reason, filmmaking will not generate interest for "general" audiences. (People will fall all over themselves to watch shows about loggers, trash collectors, and fisherman for countless seasons, but as soon as a show about filmmaking shows up, the ratings drop through the floor.)
Because of this, the folks behind Filmmaker in a Box (which chronicles the creation of the low-budget film 2 Million Stupid Women) decided to avoid general audiences and make a very specific product for a very specific audience. They chose to make an amazingly in-depth set of DVDs that specifically was targeted at micro-budget filmmakers. To do this, they made a micro-budget film in Hollywood and then created 17 hours of case study information for filmmakers to learn from their successes and mistakes at each step along the way. (Because of this fact, this set is being reviewed as training, as that's the closest thing it can be approximated to.)
The Case Study consists of 9 discs and is accompanied by a 10th disc, which has the the movie, 2 Million Stupid Women, and two short films from the director.
When I first heard about this set, I was extremely interested. When I received the set to review, I explained, frankly, to their PR rep that what would determine whether anyone was interested in watching this set was whether their flagship movie, 2 Million Stupid Women, was any good. Unlike Project Greenlight where, regardless of whether the final film is any good, you get to see how Hollywood professionals do things, with a micro-budget film, you have no such voyeuristic clout for filmmakers. The reality is, if you make a good low-budget movie, other filmmakers want to learn from your case study. If you make a crappy low-budget movie, no one cares what you have to say because, unfortunately, you can't throw a stone in any area of the globe without hitting a badly made low-budget film. It's just as simple as that. (Democratization of filmmaking has many good elements, but it also allows many films that should never have been made to be made.) I then went on to explain that if the film is good, then the case study will have to be well-realized to make it easy for folks to learn what the filmmakers have to teach.
Thus forewarned, I started in the opposite way to which one might watch Project Greenlight: With the movie first. (As it turned out, it was fortunate that I did, because the behind the scenes stuff is full of spoilers from the film or simply doesn't make sense without having first watched the film.) Fortunately, the film was actually pretty good. If we'd done a formal critique of it here at MFM it would've probably received an 8.6 – 8.9, which is very impressive. (While technically, its budget of $85K would've put it a bit over our typical critique budget, the fact that it was shot entirely in downtown LA makes the films budget pretty comparable to $30K in most any other city.)
Following a single night with a young 20-something named Melissa and her two friends, 2 Million Stupid Women looks at a woman trying to debase herself so that she can control something in her life. Along the way, she learns about her self worth and about a secret shared by her two best friends.
2 Million Stupid Women follows Mellissa and her friends as she tries to damage herself over a single night. (Images Courtesy of 2 Million Stupid Women Productions and Filmmaker in a Box LLC.)
The film's high points were its great casting and its amazingly great audio (a true rarity in micro-budget films), while its lower point was its ending. If not for the ending, which doesn't really fit the tale being told, it might've scored a final rating in the mid 9.0 range and been easier to find a larger market. (While the director, overall, did a really great job on his first feature, as the in-depth interviews on the instructional DVDs revealed, when it came time to shoot the climactic ending club scene, he second guessed the scriptwriter. Unwilling to pull the trigger on the darker ending that was scripted, he chose a less controversial and more artificial ending during production.)
Despite my personal issues with the film's ending, I really did feel there was a lot to like in this film, which felt a lot like a combination of Swingers (which the director and producer mentioned inspired them) with the teen party movie, Can't Hardly Wait.
Now that we've gotten through the first part, let's go on to the next part: is the case study interesting and complete? While I will break that down more thoroughly in the following sections, for the short answer: yes, it is!
The humiliation of Melissa drags her friends into the depths of torture.
Now let's get into the nuts and bolts of the review!
Comprehension 2 Million Women's producer/co-cinematographer Jay Holben is a writer at DV Magazine with a knack for making complex subjects--like 4 person roundtable scenes juggling the 180 degree rule--fairly accessible. While his role in choosing or setting up the behind the scenes DVDs (or deciding to approach releasing the film as part of a Case Study set) isn't made clear, it seems evident that his mentality was a driving force in the study, as its materials manage to be accessible in all but the most dense areas. (Due to my love-hate relationship with audio, my long work relationship with MFM's audio engineer, John Howard, and the fact that I always seem to find myself pulled into post-audio discussions with both filmmakers and software/equipment companies, I know a decent amount about film audio, but even I got a little bit overwhelmed on a few of the post-production audio workflow areas.)
Especially considering how many different elements were covered in this set, I thought they did a really good job of making it easy to understand. To augment understandability, they would use pop-up definitions of common Hollywood slang and expressions from time to time. For example, even though I can chat about half apple crates, "quarter" straw, sticks, and C-47s with the best of them, I had no idea what an "Abby" was-- until I watched this set. (As it turns out, it's the "second to last shot of the day"–the one right before the ubiquitous "martini shot"--and was named after a famous 1st AD in Hollywood who was always off by one shot whenever he would say they needed just "one more shot" to complete their day.) While they did do a number of these popouts, there were also a number of film terms that weren't explained this way. I think it would've been nice to have all the salient film terms have these pop-outs, so that it would be more attractive to folks who might be just beginning the research for filmmaking information.
Pop-up information gives hints about different types of "Hollywood" turns of speech.
Additionally, to help with comprehension, they include a CD full of .PDFs of the various contracts and paperwork associated with the film. To show you where the appropriate content is, they pop up a special icon with a number on it whenever the necessary piece of paperwork is being referenced in the other training materials. This is a nice touch, although it's more designed for classroom instruction, as the actual icon isn't interactive. (In other words, if you're watching it on your computer, you can't click on the icon and have a popout copy of the .PDF show up.)
Depth of Information
This set is pretty crammed full of almost everything you might want to know about the micro-budget filmmaking process they engaged in 2 Million Stupid Women, which is appropriate because director Jamie Neese was hoping to help create a set that could provide the sort of information that he couldn't find when he set out to make this film, which was his first feature.
Neese had made numerous shorts in his career, but, when it came to making a feature, he and producer Jay Holben had done everything "right," by Hollywood's "Indie" standards, without ever having anything to show for their efforts. When the script for 2 Million Stupid Women came across Neese's desk, they threw out virtually all conventional wisdom and pushed the Indiewood model as guerrilla as they could. In so doing, they finally made a completed feature film.
Jamie Neese, as the director, also acts as the introductory presenter to this cast study.
What makes this set really different than almost any other micro-budget resource out there is: they managed to make a micro-budget film with an almost a perfect scale model of the much higher priced Indiewood filmmaking system. What do I mean by that? In most parts of the country (and the world), when micro-budget films are created, everyone wears at least five (and usually ten) different hats. As such, a lot of positions don't usually exist in microbudget filmmaking.
Casting directors, for example, are the sort of luxury that many microbudget filmmakers snicker at, not because they're not amazingly helpful, but because microbudget filmmakers who can't afford something are quick to say that they "didn't need it anyway." However, most micro-budget filmmakers (if they're being honest) would have to admit that they would be curious to know what it would be like to actually have one. Well, 2 Million Stupid Women actually did have one, who, due to the fact that it was being filmed in LA where she already worked in the industry, chose to volunteer her time to make the film. Similarly, most micro-budget films have no investors, because either the film was all paid for out of pocket by the filmmaker or because donations were raised from family members or crowdfunding. As such, microbudget filmmakers moving into the Indiewood world that requires investors to function are very shocked with the "creative" restrictions they're now under. 2 Million Stupid Women may have had a micro-budget, but it's entire budget came from a single investor who was not the director or the producer. As such, you get to see how the director and producer had to come to terms with their investor and what sort of agreements were arranged.
2 Million Stupid Women also had a separate scriptwriter, something that is far more rare in the micro-budget world, and we as filmmakers get to interactively see how differences in opinion changed the final look and feel of this film. Additionally, paid extras, location fees, and filming permits are things that many microbudget films in other parts of the country or world don't have to deal with, since most of us have chosen to not write crowd scenes because we can't get reliable extras for free and we're forced to sculpt scripts that deal with off-beat locations that we can get for free (or "steal" with little fear of police intervention). 2 Million Stupid Women shows how they were able to get some things for dirt cheap (or free), while choosing to spend money on other areas and how they made these decisions. They also did an amazingly good job of explaining how SAG worked, why they chose to be a non-SAG film, what effect that had on their options, and what exceptions a non-SAG film can exploit.
Behind the scenes information dovetail into scheduling dynamics.
Because of all of this information, you can really make some informed decisions before you get ready to shoot your next film. And, as mentioned in comprehension, there's also a CD full of .PDFs of the paperwork, contracts, and articles they used to craft 2 Million Stupid Women. (This is a case study, so, unfortunately, there aren't any templates for you to modify for your own films.)
There was really only one major gap this section had: post-completion. In fact, while it's mentioned in a few areas that the film only got into two film festivals once completed, the set just stops after post-production audio and editing. I personally would've loved to have seen one DVD devoted to what strategy they chose for applying to film festivals, what deliverables they were required to present to the festivals that accepted them, what marketing attempts they made with this film (both during the festivals and separately), what social networking methods they used to promote the film (as both Jamie Neese and Jay Holben were big proponents of social networking for almost every stage of the film's production and post-production), and, finally, what led to them coming up with the idea for creating a 17 hour Case Study surrounding the set--as well as how they distributed it.
Breakdowns of different scenes with elements found in the script also help
expand on the useful information in this series.
When it comes to extended behind-the-scenes/case study DVD sets, there is only one series by which all others are measured: The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition DVD sets. I own every one of those sets and, even though I've only watched the extended editions of the films once, I and my wife have watched the behind-the-scenes DVDs countless times. The reason for this is because they really thought through how to present the entire filmmaking process to fans in such a way that you get pulled into the comradery of the films and and the personalities that helped sculpt them. (Of course, the fact that the film was helmed by a crazy little hobbit who insisted on wearing shorts and flip flops in the cold mountains of New Zealand and capturing as much as he could with his own personal camcorder did nothing to detract from its appeal.) Even Project Greenlight: Season 1 has difficulty holding a candle to the completeness found in the extra DVDs associated with Lord of the Rings or the amount that they reveal about the filmmaking system.
With such a high bar, how does Filmmaker in a Box compare? Surprisingly high, actually. They may not have had as many behind-the-scenes cameras as LOTR had and Filmmaker in a Box may have a lot more talking head interviews over black backgrounds, but the end result was a series that held your interest pretty much from start to finish. Oh, there were a few areas I bypassed because they were a bit repetitive (like some of the casting call backs and the initial table read), but, by and large, I found myself watching nearly every segment of this series. Even the auditions were interesting, because they put up "pop up" notes that the casting director, director, and producer were texting as they watched the different actors. (Granted they only had permission to show the auditions of the people who were actually cast in some role in the film. It would have actually been interesting if they had had permission for all auditions, so they could've shown the runners-up that weren't cast at all. Sometimes seeing who someone just doesn't choose is very revealing about the casting process, especially if some of their thoughts are included, as well.)
Interviews with all the main production people, including the writer (featured above), show how the different steps broke down in the creation of this film, which is invaluable.
Even the extra features on the 2 Million Stupid Women disc were interesting. Most notably, there are two short films directed by Jamie Neese: Mindgame, a rather clever thriller, and The Second Comeback, a short comedy. (The second film, which portrays the notion that, when Jesus Christ comes back, he will have to hire a Hollywood ad agency, could have been the most offensive thing on the planet, yet somehow it managed to just barely learn more toward hysterical than blasphemous, reminding me of some of the better skits from MAD TV.)
Because this is both a film and a Case Study, it's necessary to look first at initial usability, followed by reusability.
While the overall set is pretty easy to use, there are three strange flaws that do have a deleterious effect (sort of like flies buzzing around your head while you're trying to sunbathe at the beach have a negative effect on your overall sense of contentment). If the creators do decide to release an updated version of this set, I really hope they will correct the following elements, as they really should be fairly simple to correct and will make the set feel far more polished.
Perhaps the biggest flaw is that there is no "Play All" feature. While it's great to have everything broken down in chapters (especially for schools who might want discussion after each section or for folks who want to show something to just one member of their crew), many people who buy this set are going to want to watch an entire subsection all at once, especially since some chapters are only one to two minutes in length.
Behind-the-scenes retrospectives also reveal how they chose the cameras to shoot with.
The second biggest flaw comes in different order problems. The first issue is that, since this is not Project Greenlight (in which the show was aired entirely before the film was released), the first disc in the series should be the film. This may be a case study series, but it's a case study based on a non-Hollywood film that most people have not yet seen. As such, they're going to want to watch it immediately, so it should be the first disc in the set. (And, as I mentioned in the intro, the set doesn't make much sense if you haven't first watched the film.) The next example of order issues came in the Production disc. Here they place the Production Diary for each day (or location), which is the general overview of those day(s), after they've gone into in-depth sections like Location, Cinematography/Gaffing, and Sound. Since these are drill-down topics that come out of a more general overview, the Production Diary should be first in the list. Finally, also in the Production disc, there were a few sections that were completely backwards in relation to the shoot. For example, they wait until the very last day to cover how the audio technician records the audio header information before each day of shooting, something that would have been much more logical if explored on Day One.
The third flaw is not one of functionality, but one of visual image. For some reason, the compression of the movie and the short films are different than the Case Study materials. The case study materials look beautifully shot and perfectly recreated on the DVD, as though it's being displayed in true progressive mode. The film and shorts, on the other hand, seem to have some sort of interlacing as part of their compression, which makes transitions and camera movement look unattractive, especially when viewed on a digital screen or computer monitor. This is especially noticeable when behind the scenes interviews with people are inter-cut with images from the film. (Editor's Note: The folks from FiB have updated me to let me know that this issue has been caught and that they will be sending out replacement film discs to all people who have these issues. Starting January 3rd, all purchased sets will automatically include this updated replacement film disc.)
Again, regardless of whether these issues are corrected or not, this set is very useful and you will definitely re-use it. (In fact, I would say these flaws damage the initial usability more than reusability because, once you've seen all the content, you can go right to the areas you're most interested in rehashing or showing to one of your crew.)
Value vs. Cost
For the amount of work that went into this set, is $399 worth it? Yes, but it's still an awkward price-point for the actual demographic that they're wanting to reach. While it may be a smart price-point if they're wanting to primarily sell to schools, universities that are actually looking into micro-budget filmmaking as a viable pursuit (or maybe for city libraries that are trying to expand their tutorial and training sections for different careers), I personally think that they should market a version for actual low-budget filmmakers that is at a $199 price point. I think this would yield a lot more sales and get the word out a lot more quickly about this great resource.
Overall Comment While 2 Million Stupid Women may have its flaws, it's a pretty impressive film, especially for a first feature. The fact that it was constructed in an almost perfect microcosm of the Indiewood process set in a micro-budget framework makes the perspective of its case study a truly unique and valuable resource that can enable you to make more educated decisions about what elements you might want to add to your future films. While the price point may put some folks off, the ones that choose to pony up the funds will likely be very happy that they did so.
director of two feature length films and half a dozen short films, Jeremy Hanke founded Microfilmmaker Magazine to help all no-budget filmmakers make
better films. His first book on low-budget special effects techniques, GreenScreen Made Easy, (which he co-wrote with Michele Yamazaki) was released by MWP to very favorable reviews. He's curently working on the sci-fi film franchise, World of Depleted through Depleted: Day 419 and the feature film, Depleted.