Take a soldier/spy/cop/assassin/gangster/space captain/chosen one. Put him on a mission to save his family/ team/country/get revenge/do one last job. Mix well with some explosions/fight scenes/shoot outs and you have a recipe for box office success?

Well, yes and no. Action can be a commercial genre, but it’s also a tricky one to get right.

From a distribution perspective, action’s very appealing. Sales agents and distributors like action because audiences like action. There’s a strong market demand and good action travels well. Fight scenes need no translation and work across all cultures. Check out an excited 9 year old Alex in Tanzania explaining the plot of Commando.

Action’s a curious exception where foreign language films can succeed and find a global audience. They generally can’t compete with English language films, but the extraordinary like Ong Bak, Jet Li and Jackie Chan films, John Woo and other Hong Kong action greats make it out there.

The challenge for indie filmmakers is how do you balance the cost of making an action film with the returns from distribution?

Action is expensive to make. Producer Stephen Follows’ genre stats for UK film show that action films made up 5% of all films made in the UK between 2010 – 2012, but account for 30% of the budget spent on all UK films.

There may be studio films skewing the numbers, but explosions, car chases, shoot outs, stunt men, insurance and health and safety are all going to blow up your budget. Add in VFX for fantasy or sci-fi setting and watch your costs skyrocket.

That needs to be balanced by your distribution income. It’s a difficult market out there. Minimum guarantees are falling. Distributors have been hit hard by the decline in DVD sales and rentals and although VOD numbers are rising, they’re not coming up to the levels we’ve saw for DVD to offset the loss in revenue.

When it comes to action, with the exception of The Raid, lower budget indie action films don’t break through to the theatrical level, so you’re primarily looking at DVD, VOD and TV as your revenue streams.

On VOD, action performs well. I have a friend who worked for some of the major UK VOD platforms. Action was consistently the most popular genre. For TV, action is also in demand. Some broadcasters may need recognisable cast and high production values to make an offer but it varies from territory to territory.

It’s possible to make low budget action films that make money. When I was working as a sales agent, we had a no-budget action film that made its budget several times over. It’s a case of finding your niche in the market and hitting the right notes. Here are some companies who are working on doing just that.

Anchor Bay, a UK distributor, has moved into production and is focusing on making genre films including action. They’re leveraging SEIS and EIS tax schemes and the UK production tax credit to keep budgets low and produce films using their market knowledge. They’re hoping to produce 10 – 15 films a year and are working with Richwater Films, the team behind 2013 action flick Vendetta.

Arrowstorm Entertainment are a US production company based in Utah who specialise in making sci fi and fantasy action. They’re successfully developing a brand and building an audience, who support their films and contribute to their VFX budgets on Kickstarter, which is a good strategy to emulate. They make the most of their Utah location to create an otherworldly feel to their films.

The Asylum, best known for Sharknado, have a great business model pumping out low budget mockbusters, which clock in at the $500,000 budget mark and earn between $125,000 – $250,000 in profit. Sometimes they partner with SyFy network for their films. They ride the publicity wave of the studio movies they rip off, from Atlantic Rim to Transmorphers, and have earned a cult following.

From a commercial standpoint, these work. They’re viable business models in a tough market. They have an audience. From a quality perspective, decide for yourself. But The Raid proves you can do outstanding action on a low budget.

For me, it’s the best action film in the past five years. Nail bitingly tense with stunning action scenes that were visceral, gritty and raw. Its budget was $1.1 million and they made it back at Cannes, when five minutes of footage sparked a bidding war with distributors. It was unlike anything else they’d seen before.

Globally, it took $4.1 million worldwide. $4.1 million might seem low, but it’s a modern classic. It’ll have a long tail on DVD and VOD sales and generated a sequel, putting Indonesia and director Gareth Evans on the map for action film making. There’s an American remake in the works.

If your budget is creeping up into the millions, that’s a good time to talk to a reputable sales agent about realistic returns. Across all genres, films in the $3 – $5 million range can find it really difficult to get returns in the current climate.

They can fall into that middle ground of not high level enough to be theatrical and justify the spend for P&A, but then can’t recoup their budget in DVD, VOD and TV sales due to the squeezed margins.

Whatever your budget level, here are some key points to consider when crafting your action extravaganza.

Cast

As always, cast matters and can help immensely with distribution and marketing. Unquestionably, names add values but there’s been an interesting shift over the years.

Unlike the 1980s, where action heroes like Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Bruce Willis, Steve Seagall, Jean Claude Van Damme etc to guarantee box office success, there aren’t any straight up action stars any more. Even the 80s heroes only have the same appeal when they team up or when they’re in an established franchise.

There doesn’t seem to be any young action stars that can guarantee a theatrical release on their name alone. Something strange is happening when Liam Neeson has a career renaissance aged 56 with Taken, but there doesn’t seem to be any up and coming 20/30 something year olds carving out a place in that space. When the world needs to be saved, it seems like wrinkles are an advantage.

There are lower level players who can add commercial value like Vinnie Jones, Jason Statham, Gina Carano, Danny Trejo, and Michal Jai White. Richwater work with Danny Dyer, Arrowstorm have Kevin Sorbo in a number of their projects and The Asylum ponies up for TV names.

Consider approaching some MMA stars and see if they’ve got the potential to cross over. They come with an established fan base and have the physical capabilities to pull off some fantastic fight scenes. Ronda Rousey popped up in The Expendables 3 and will be in Fast & Furious 7. She could headline her own films with the right project and supporting cast just like Gina Carano.

Similarly, WWE might be another source for talent if their contracts allow.  Dwayne Johnson (The Rock) built a film career from his start in WWE. Again, WWE stars have an established international fanbase which can add value to your film.

If you’ve got someone in mind, get in touch with sales agents and distributors to figure out their cost to added value and if it makes sense. The market changes constantly. In Berlin earlier this year, I was chatting to someone at Lionsgate who told me they were no longer considering Nicholas Cage films because his value had fallen too much. Too many low quality films had diluted his commercial impact.

If your budget doesn’t stretch to known cast, then please pick actors who can act as well as fight. I’ve seen low budget actions films suffer with talented stunt men and fighters as the leads, who can deliver an awesome knock out punch. Ask them to deliver a line and they have as much charisma as a bloody punchbag. Good actors can elevate a film. Bad actors can make it unwatchable.

Script

I’m not saying your action movie needs to be Citizen Kane with shootouts, but a tightly written script, with sharp dialogue, well realised characters and relatable motivations is going to raise your film above the pack, broaden your audience and extend its sales cycle.

I think some action filmmakers are guilty of thinking having a strong script is like reading Playboy for the articles. They give us paper thin characters, plots holes you can drive a tank through and cringeworthy dialogue then try to distract us by blowing up a building.

Yes, explosions are cool, but make us care. Give us a reason to root for your hero. Go read The Hero With Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. George Lucas used it as a blueprint for Star Wars which turned out alright.

Read Die Hard. It’s a fantastic script and shows you how to get your audience to connect to your characters. The Blacklist have a great script analysis with link to the screenplay here. It’s one of best action films of all time.

As the comments on the Blacklist blog point out, it’s a great formula for an action film and forms the framework of an action sub genre – “Contained space, short time span, simple setup of Protagonist vs. Nemeses.” You can see it at play in The Raid, Dredd and countless others.

Rewatch Heat. Read the script. You can find it here. Compelling characters with dialogue that sizzles on screen. Den of Geek have a good article on how Michael Mann came up with Heat. Research. He went to talk to cops and criminals and came up with brilliantly realised film, based on true events. It gave the film an originality and freshness that helped make it a classic.

Open Strong

As I said in The First Five Minutes Theory, sales agents, distributors and increasingly audiences make up the minds on a film in the first five minutes. It’s your chance to set the tone for your film and establish your characters. Give us action. Hook us in. Grab us from the start. This should be the first of your action set pieces in the film. Blow us away. Take a look at the following to see how it’s done.

The Bank Heist – The Dark Knight

The Chase – Dredd

Adios Amigo – Raiders of the Lost Ark

Marketing

The Asylum are onto something with their mockbusters. If you’re making an action film, have a look at the tent pole projects on the studio slates. Are there any elements in common that you can exploit?

For example, when Godzilla was released, it would have been the perfect time to release an indie creature/disaster movie and ride the wave of the studio’s global marketing spend. Make up similar artwork and let their publicity do the work for you.

When a film is that heavily advertised, it influences and promotes the sales of similar films. It can also trickle down to VOD. If you like X studio blockbuster film, you may also like this film, directing traffic you wouldn’t normally get.

Distributors are savvy to it and see the potential. Kaleidoscope Film Distribution in the UK put out a tenth anniversary version of the Frankenstein TV series with Luke Goss, Alec Newman Julie Delphy and William Hurt to coincide with the 2014 release of I, Frankenstein with Aaron Eckhart and the upcoming 2015 version of Frankenstein with James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe. It cuts their marketing spend and provides a boost in income.

Right now, Terminator Genesis is being shot. If you’re doing a sci-fi action with cyborgs, that can help with your distribution release. After that, Arnie’s going on to do The Legend of Conan, which gives a window for an indie swords and sandals fantasy action film.

Look for ties in and opportunities. You can’t compete with a studio’s P&A budget but if you’re smart, you can use it for your own film’s benefit.

Agree, disagree, questions, thoughts? Hit me up in the comments.

Photo Credit: The Raid

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