Veteran Producer…Making Feature Films May Be A Fools Errand in Todays Marketplace.

Veteran Producer:

“Making Feature Films May Be A Fool’s

Errand in Today’s Marketplace”



I’ve spent my entire lifetime in the feature film business, as both a producer-
director-writer, and an importer and distributor. While I won’t get nostalgic about the “good old days,” there was a time when one could make a feature film, get it into distribution, recoup the negative cost and make a profit, then move on to another film. That model seems forever broken, and it does not look like we’ll be revisiting that scenario in the near future. It’s why I’ve decided to move away from feature films to television.

Let me recount an incident from 30 years ago. I met with a small theatrical
distributor in New York. It was a family business. Morris (not his real name) had been very successful in the garment business and gotten bitten by the show biz bug. I went to pitch an idea for a feature film, looking for him to finance and distribute. After listening to my story, he took the cigar out of his mouth and said, “How much will it cost?” I responded, “$150,000.” He thought for a second, and then said to me, “If you can do it for $125,00, I’ll bet on your horse.” We shook hands and the deal was done. Those days and this kind of movie executive are gone with the wind.

A number of factors have lead to the current state of the film business.

The advent of cable television promised a plethora of new channels
where “specialty” product would find a home. Unfortunately the major media companies took over most of these channels, and superimposed the old network model on them. Sell TV spots was the mantra, and the show most likely to accomplish that goal would be first in line. The independents, who saw cable as their salvation, were forced to the margins again.

The introduction of home video in the early eighties had a major impact on how films made money. Theatrical distribution had always been the crown jewel in any film’s earnings history. Inn just a few years, video revenues exceeded theatrical income. The studios resisted home video for years, fearing piracy, something that continues to haunt rights owners in the digital world we live in. But home video gave new life to movies, especially classic titles from which studios mined tons of gold and for a while, indie films were the darlings of video. But that changed.

The vertical integration of the business and the corporate model too the place of what used to be a passionate and personal decision-making process. There used to be two possibilities, yes and no. Now there are three: yes, no and no decision. In the corporate world, someone could lose their job for betting on the wrong horse, and at the same time, they could also be fired if someone else bets on that horse and it’s a winner. So they take meetings, review projects, but rarely greenlight an indie project. Part of this vertical integration included the major media companies buying up all the medium-size companies or forcing them out of business. So most of the major risk takers (who’d bet on people like me) went the way of the dinosaur, further reducing the indie’s chances of getting projects made and distributed.

The introduction of inexpensive digital technology for the shooting and editing of films and programs dealt another blow to the old models. Anyone could now make a film with these low–cost tools. That’s a good news-bad news scenario. It’s great that talented people can make films on micro-budgets, but at the same time, lots of very untalented people are doing the same. I’ve sat on a number of film festival juries and literally had to endure these amateur epics, asking myself, “what were they thinking?”

There was a time when film buyers around the world chased after American films. As foreign filmmakers began using these digital tools, making local productions in their own languages became cheap and easy. What did this do to the marketplace for films? Big supply + level demand = get lower prices. Lower prices mean lower budgets. In many ways, the production values previously available to indie films were no longer possible. So, for independents like me, this was another issue with which to contend. To make or not to make feature films in this current atmosphere, that is the burning question.

Then there are the stars’ salaries and the marketing costs that have skyrocketed. I recall a time when you could hire the biggest star for $100,000 a film, and when marketing the film was calculated as a reasonable portion of its earnings. Television time was inexpensive. It was possible to mount the kind of media campaign for an film that now only the major studios can afford.

It’s become an industry with no middle. High budget films with 50 million to spend on marketing and no/low budget films with no stars and no marketing budget. When my last feature film failed to recoup its production costs, I was faced with the reality of what to do next. Clearly, making a general entertainment film in direct competition with studio efforts no longer makes sense. I had lots of ideas and scripts for features, but had to face the reality that getting them financed and distributed was a real long shot, not one I wanted to bet on any longer. So, what to do?

Change horses. Bet on a new horse. Television. It had always been my dream to create a TV series and get it on the air. But it’s not an easy task. A veteran of TV once told me, “To get your show on the air, they have to take off something that they’re running and on which they’re making money.” So, how do you motivate a network or major network production company to back something new and innovative? It’s a tough trick to pull off. That’s the process in which I’m now engaged.

Three years ago I began work on what was planned as a reality show about
bartenders who worked in gay bars in San Francisco-all high concept, edgy and exciting. I even found a network ready to give me an order if I could find the right bartenders. After meeting lots of candidates, it became clear that no one really wanted the cameras in their private lives. When I reported this back to my network contact, he said, “Why don’t you develop this as a drama series, and call it “Cocktails?” Thus began the arduous process of developing a dramatic series, finding a cast for the demo, and writing the pilot script and the story lines for 120 episodes, including the series finale.

Getting the attention of the networks requires more than a good idea. So, I shot a teaser trailer that you can see here with a cast of local San Francisco actors. I then started making contacts during a recent trip to Los Angeles and received extremely positive feedback and some ideas to improve the show.

I’m now planning to re-shoot the demo film. In a happy accident during the recent shoots, we were following an actor through a crowd at night, lighting only him with portable light. Everyone else was lit with the yellow-orange of the street- lights. The revelation: The show, which takes place mostly at night, would be shot in a classic film noir style, but in a Technicolor palette. As soon as it’s completed, my contacts at the talent agencies, actors, managers and friends in the business are ready to run with the show.

Trailers cost money, and the one I’m going to shoot is expensive. So, for the first time in my career, I’ve begun a public fundraising campaign. All my previous films were self-financed. But hard times call for innovative solutions. So, I’ve launched campaigns on two sites: indiegogo and kickstarter.


We’re lucky to have some of the most amazing premiums being offered by any project on both sites. This week we’re launching a major media and e-mail campaign to drive traffic to these sites, and hopefully, bring in the much-needed financial supporters with open checkbooks.

The film business is truly a brave new world without rules, but I have faith in my project, and believe we’re going to sell it and have a long run on television. The nice thing about television is that you get paid every week a show is in production, and there are residuals for key creative personnel and actors. It’s a much different than waiting for your feature film to make money, if ever. Oh, yes, filmmakers need to earn a living, not just get “exposure” at film festival and YouTube. One can die from exposure. It’s why I’ve changed horses, and why I’m betting on “Cocktails.” So, I’m
inviting those of you who love great television to get involved and help support the project.

Ron Merk

More About Ron Merk:

Ron’s 40-year career includes being an independent producer, director, writer, distributor, importer, film preservationist, journalist and film festival panelist/juror multimedia director for Broadway show OH! CALCUTTA! Currently writing a Broadway musical adaptation of Schwarzenegger’s first movie, “Hercules in New York,” and developing the exciting and innovative TV drama series, “Cocktails.”