Here’s my advice for indie filmmakers looking to build a long-term career. Make family films. Not what you were expecting, right? Let’s go into the why.
They’re in demand
In 2012, Ian Lewis, the director of Sky Movies, spoke at an event in London, encouraging the UK production community to make family films and announced Sky’s decision to invest in their own family films, with budgets of £5-6 million each. From an article in Broadcast:
“The kids and family industry is completely under invested in this country. No-one is investing in family content, whether TV or film, and my only option has been to buy from overseas, so I’m hoping that our involvement will be very positive in that respect,” said Lewis, who pointed out that “week in, week out, the best performing movies for Sky are family movies.”
Sky Movies plans to produce two family features in 2013, with the eventual aim being to put out 5-6 films a year with budget of around £5m. There will be a particular focus on adventure, magic and mystery films.
Lewis’s call for content is not only true in the UK, it’s also true globally. Market after market, buyers are asking for family films.
Family films also perform well in the home entertainment market, both in sales and rentals. Take a look at these charts from producer Stephen Follows who did some great research tracking home video physical sales and rentals by genre from 2003 – 2012, using BFI data. Click on the images for larger versions.
Family films were over 10% of both the UK rental and physical market in 2012.
His original post is here and very much worth reading.
Going back to Stephen’s fantastic genre statistics, between 2010 – 12, there were 5 family films produced in the UK. From my own experience looking for acquisitions, family films were extremely difficult to find. For a filmmaker, that means you have less competition and it’s easier for your film to get noticed and considered.
They have a long tail
Unlike horror, which has a short sales span, a good family film will keep selling and selling. Your film can be relicensed to different TV broadcasters, starting with pay TV channels and onto free TV. Choose the right subject matter and your film can carve out space for DVD sales years past its initial release. Popular right now? Films about dogs and horses. Don’t underestimate the pester power of kids who see a cute dog on a DVD cover at the supermarket or parents or grandparents picking up something to keep them occupied.
Essentially, family films are a niche in the market, with high demand, low supply, and potential for long returns on investment from your film.
What’s a family film?
If your synopsis starts “When Joey was killed in a car crash, his parents and sister move back to their hometown. Together, they learn to overcome their grief and grow together as a family.”, you’re not making a family film. You’re making a drama. In Berlin this year, I was pitching a family film to a distributor. It was towards the end of the market, and he looked up weary. “Nobody dies, right?”
Family films follow simple story lines with positive messages and elements of action, adventure, comedy, and suspense, clear heroes and villains that your audience gets emotionally invested in, and have a happy ending. Really great family films manage to be four quadrant films, films that hit all the demographics – males and female audiences both under and over 25. That means you want to appeal to men and women, young and old alike.
Pixar is an absolute master at this. It’s why I will shamelessly go and see any of their films in the cinema. But if you want examples of fantastic live action four quadrant films, then I give you Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back To The Future, Jurassic Park, and E.T. More recently, you can add Pirates of the Caribbean and The Hobbit to the list. They’re not for very young kids being PG-13, but they work and challenge your perception of a family film.
Animation’s dominated family films in the past twenty years. Pixar set the standard, Disney has always been a major player, but the other studios have picked up their game with Despicable Me, How To Train Your Dragon, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs and The Lego Movie. Studio Ghibli’s gained international recognition for their stunning work in films like Spirited Away. There’s fantastic lessons to be learned about storytelling from these films, which can be applied to live action family films. Immerse yourself in them. See what works.
Looking at family films as a genre, there are some common topics that have proved successful time and time again.
The Animal Movie
Back to Rin Tin Tin in the 1920s, family films about animals have been massively popular. Think Lassie, Free Willy, Born Free, Babe, Air Bud, National Velvet, Black Beauty, Beethoven, Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and Homeward Bound. Successful animal films often generate sequels, which gives you the chance to build a franchise. If you’re making an animal film, then your animal needs to be the lead character, has to talk and carry the movie. A well known actor for the voice of your animal helps hugely for sales.
The Sports Film
Where plucky underdogs and misfits grow through sport, beat the bad guys and learn courage, determination and friendship along the way. The Karate Kid, Bad News Bears, The Mighty Ducks, Cool Runnings, and Cars. Pick a sport with global appeal like football, (soccer for the Americans) rather than baseball, American football or hockey that don’t have a broad international audience. Alternatively, target a female audience with figure skating, horse riding, and dance.
Body swaps, time travel, magic in an every day world, being mysteriously transformed by a science experiment gone wrong are played for laughs and adventure in films like Freaky Friday, Big, Honey I Shrunk The Kids and The Nutty Professor, Matilda, The Witches, and Mary Poppins.
The Adventure Story
Step into a new world and become a hero. Escapism and adventure, where someone ordinary can suddenly become extraordinary. It’s the hero’s journey. Think Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Goonies, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, The Wizard of Oz, Hook, Jumanji, Coraline, The Neverending Story and The Chronicles of Narnia.
The Making Of?
As an indie filmmaker, it’s extremely unlikely your family film will cross over and become a theatrical release. Why? Theatrical family films are big budget, big name affairs with outstanding production values. At the studio level, most family films are based on best selling books and established stories like Maleficent based on Sleeping Beauty, using their inbuilt audience and require a massive P&A (prints and advertising) spend to drive numbers to the cinemas to make a profit. For an indie to make it as a theatrical release, you’re looking at a budget in the millions like Molly Moon and The Adventurer: The Curse of the Midas Box, both based on best selling books.
Aim for the global television and home entertainment market. That means a fantastic script, strong production values, and some known cast, either from TV or film. Dean Cain’s made a career playing the dad in TV movies. Budget range should be around the $1 million mark, with flexibility depending on the cast and a run time in the 80-90 minute range. Kids have short attention spans. Get some film and production experience under your belt first. It’s not the easiest genre to cut your teeth on.
In their acquisition wish-list from 2013, Sky Movies were looking for:
“High production values and recognisable cast known to a UK audience: most popular stars and directors, films that win awards or other publicity
Genres of specific interest: seasonal (Christmas, Valentine’s), family (e.g. dance,animals), animation.”
Sky are the UK’s leading pay TV provider and are a good benchmark for the standard expected worldwide for television broadcast. What does that look like? Here’s the trailer for the 12 Dogs of Christmas, which Sky picked up.
On the sports side, here’s 16-Love, which was distributed by eOne.
It also did well on VOD, thanks to that title.
You should try to make your film evergreen. That means a film which is going to age well and continue to sell. Classic costuming, no pop culture references and avoid use of technology because nothing dates a film faster than a mobile phone.
There’s scope to make lower budget family films, but finding the balancing point between budget and return if your film isn’t strong enough for the premium pay TV channels might be challenging. Here are a couple of films that got distribution.
Picked up by Anchor Bay in the UK
Distributed by High Fliers in the UK
I realise family films aren’t the immediate choice for the majority of filmmakers, but, I think they’re underrated. Great family films stay with you for the rest of your life. There’s no harder audience to entertain than kids and as a genre, it gives you a great shot at a sustainable career.
The slate of films I’m developing as a producer? Family films.
Agree, disagree, questions, thoughts? Hit me up in the comments.
Picture Credit: Laputa: Castle in the Sky