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EXCLUSIVE: Paramount Experiments with Grease Sing-Along and Indie Labels Insurge, Vantage, Famous

by Anne Thompson
July 6, 2010 3:24 AM
9 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood

Whatever happened to Insurge, that new micro-budget Paramount division that sought to take an alternative approach to standard studio filmmaking? “We want to find and distribute crazy, unpredictable, and hopefully awesome movies - movies that make you want to line up to see at your local theater with all your friends (and us)," stated the Beta Insurge website. "Movies that a big studio would never release because they’re too risky, too silly, and they don’t star Sandra Bullock.”

Well, Insurge is happening, but not in the form the studio had originally envisioned. Reportedly allotted a budget of $1 million to seek out promising young filmmakers and give them $100,000 budgets, Insurge is now more under-the-radar, although the industry is starting to become aware of it. First of all, the trade guilds prevent a major studio from funding movies at that level, although a negative pick-up arrangement is still possible. And acquisitions can happen--some like education doc Waiting for Superman are destined for Paramount Vantage release. The former Classics specialty label is still alive and well under the big-studio umbrella and Paramount president Adam Goodman, who told me he wants to keep all his options open.

Thompson on Hollywood

The Duplass brothers are among the indie directors inside the Paramount Vantage tent with Jeff Who Lives At Home, along with Sopranos creator David Chase, who's writing a suburban musical. The label is also releasing porn comedy pick-up Middle Men. Paramount Famous will release Sundance pick-up The Romantics through a yet to be determined distribution company. And then there's homevideo label Paramount Famous, which takes on direct-to-DVD projects that are too small for Vantage.

So far nothing has been acquired for Insurge. But acquisitions execs are on the prowl for projects, at festivals and elsewhere. First, the studio is experimenting with Grease the Sing-Along. "It's a work-in-progress," says Goodman, who ardently believes in figuring out how to harness movie audiences as old top-down distribution models fall away. "We're experimenting, playing, brainstorming great ideas, listening to the corners of the room. Insurge is our extra-credit division. We're not investing great capital or resources. We have no mandate, quotas, or business plan."

After studio interactive exec Amy Powell's innovative marketing approach--based on the on-demand model--worked so well for Paranormal Activity, Goodman decided to apply some of the studio's newfound knowledge in on-demand marketing to a sing-along rerelease of Grease: The Movie. The studio created cool new sing-along titles (lightning bolts show up on "Greased Lightning") for each song, and debuted the reworked movie last weekend at the Hollywood Bowl. It was a joyous, jam-packed success.

Thompson on Hollywood

In this new incarnation of Insurge, the studio wants to recreate the excitement of bringing people together at a movie theater, revamping ways to tell stories (and fight piracy, too). It's for movies that don't fit into other categories. They put out the word again via Twitter and Facebook that the studio would bring the movie to the communities that demanded it and waited for different markets to pop. First up was an obscure town in Florida, Ocala. The studio was mystified. It turned out to be John Travolta's home town.

The studio is planning a two-week limited engagement starting July 8, hoping to tap into some of the Hairspray and Mamma Mia! crowd. If you want the movie in your home town, you have to demand it. Here's the Tweet Map. "Our goal is to rethink the distribution of unconventional movies, discover new talent and voices, tell new stories, and reinvigorate the classics," says Powell. "Community is vital to getting moviegoing to be an exciting, fun, awesome experience."

Goodman is looking at the online digital universe and trying to imagine how it will work with narrower niche titles going into hundreds, not thousands of markets, that could eventually add up to rich long-tail inventory, which is where the distribution future is heading. With multiple smaller titles, one breakout can pay for the others-- and the studio can not only save on marketing costs, but can discover talent along the way. "Digital opportunities will continue to increase over the next couple of years," says Goodman. "And nothing is too small. We can pull different levers. We're figuring it out as we go along. We want the audience to tell us what to do."


(Illustration of Hollywood Bowl Grease Sing-Along by JT Steiny courtesy of the LAT}

9 Comments

  • Anne Thompson | July 7, 2010 11:38 AMReply

    The solution seems to be to return to the age-old "negative pick-up" formula whereby filmmakers raise indie financing with the commitment from the studio to acquire certain rights, etc. The point here too is that even $1 million is a drop in the bucket in studio land. It's worth applauding a studio for trying to think outside the box, encourage creativity and look into the future. They'd better.

  • Sheri | July 7, 2010 10:32 AMReply

    What a disaster they have to deal with now and the millions of dollars they could have saved. Good luck Adam with your $3-$5M you make here and there while you eat up admin fees twice that. Just release a movie that makes over a couple hundred mil please.

    Shareholders are watching and want results.

  • Scott Macaulay | July 7, 2010 9:32 AMReply

    Hi Moi,

    SAG, DGA and even WGA aren't as big a budgetary issue as IATSE. In fact, studios make lots of films with non-DGA directors. IA, which covers all the below the line craftspeople -- dps, editors, grips, gaffers, etc. -- has the minimums plus the Pension and Welfare costs that make these films very hard to do at the studio level. And then there are the Teamsters too....

    When InDigEnt did these kinds of films they struck an overall IATSE deal offering IATSE members significant back-end in a good position, but even their budgets were more than the $100,000 budgets Insurge is talking about.

  • Moi | July 6, 2010 9:17 AMReply

    Hold on Scott & Anne, not so fast, it's just hard to do.

    http://www.dga.org/contracts/agreements_ctr_low.php3 &

    http://www.sagindie.org/resources/contracts/ &

    wga http://bit.ly/cid1Ii

  • Anne Thompson | July 6, 2010 8:53 AMReply

    Scott's right; as an example, here's the DGA sideletter: http://www.dga.org/index2.php3?chg=

  • Scott Macaulay | July 6, 2010 8:33 AMReply

    David, on the grounds that the studios are signatory to agreements that mandate specific wage minimums and work rules.

  • Antonio | July 6, 2010 7:47 AMReply

    Great drawing above Anne :-)

  • mccrae | July 6, 2010 7:34 AMReply

    David- on the grounds that there are guild minimums

    and Adam Goodman is a dancing clown, holding his job for maybe ten minutes more.

  • DavidC | July 6, 2010 4:58 AMReply

    "the trade guilds prevent a major studio from funding movies at that level"

    On what possible grounds?

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