Filmmaking / Directing : The plethora of embarrassingly bad films by Doug Nelson

Doug Nelson

The plethora of embarrassingly bad films

The reduced barrier to entry into the indie film biz, enabled by inexpensive production tools, has a consequence of creating a profusion of really bad content. Finding even a watchable film is difficult at best and discovering a good film among the detritus is an exceptionally uncommon event. The truth is increasingly self evident – not everyone should be a filmmaker. The question is how to gently make this truth eminently clear to those cluttering the environment and thus making it more difficult for the few skilled practitioners. Distribution is the indie filmmaker’s ultimate goal but the pipeline is clogged with hairball films. Why aren’t Indies working together to find a solution? The industry is sluggish in adjusting to what’s becoming an ever clearer paradigm shift. It will cost us all. What to do?

Simon © Simon

Doug, You make an interesting observation. I guess it is all subjective to the one making the appraisal. There are many movies with cult followings, in which I just shake my head. So what do I know? Then, there are those who would agree. IGE: Harlem Shake. An internet sensation. Millions upon millions of views and 1000's of remix's. This example could be applied to movies as well. Indy movies that went on to make a 2nd and or 3rd installment. So to whom should the gate keeper be entrusted to? Or will Capitalism prevail? Sadly many great movies maybe overlooked due to the 'hairballs'. I think that is your point, where you must do as others do to 'play along' and hope to be recognized. Quagmire....

Doug Nelson

I’m generally a pretty up-beat sort of guy but I’ve reviewed over 100 films (from 2 min to 2 hour) in the past three months for a couple of large international film festivals and I’m just burned out by all the junk I’ve had to watch. There were two excellent films, maybe half a dozen good ones (mostly shorts) with the remainder being pretty bad to terrible. The question is how do these 2 excellent films rise above the scum on the filmmaker’s pond? One of these (a Doc) ought to make it to the Nature Channel or PBS. The final gatekeeper is the audience. Every filmmaker starts somewhere (I’ve made a couple of clunkers – which I don’t show) but every filmmaker must be taught to learn from the mistakes and get better. A dreadful lot of ‘em seem to be struggling to attain even mediocrity. If filmmaking isn’t for you, there’s no shame in being a dentist. I apologize for my rant; I’ll quietly go back to my writing now.

Doug Nelson

Alle I understand and agree with your observation on festivals and their operators – they are basically in it to make a buck. However, there a few retired old pros who would like to pay it forward and the festivals are a great gathering place. So please pardon my rant because I sometime grow a little weary from pushing the stone uphill. Still I’m ever on the alert for the occasional gem.

Glen Eric Huysamer

I have to look at it from a different perspective which is more personal, in the fact that before all this new technology which was cheaper and allows just about anybody to make a movie, good or bad. Being here in Africa I did not have a hair balls chance of ever having enough bucks to rub together even to attempt to make a movie of any form, be is a skit, short nonsense movie, documentary or anything. I worked on films powered by governments and or Studios from abroad who came here to get value for their buck and cheaper production values. Now I can, and most of the fun is in the exercise, the love of doing it. Picking up my DSLR, my little DV cam and my cheap Cell Phone cam, going out getting shots and just sitting back in my tiny studio, self built from money earned from working on bigger productions by the big names and at least trying to do it. This is what is great about my bad movies. It is all just great attempting to do it. Do I dream of making a big one? Yes I do and I am trying. Will I succeed? There is better chances now than ever before and I am loving the journey. Who are you or I to judge what movie is bad or not when we all know that even with all this new 'cheap' production methods there is always that commitment that went into making it. The overcoming of that innate fear of exposing oneself to the possibility of ridicule by others, and just totally flunking out hopelessly or bombing in those inevitable moments at film festivals or pitching moments. I have had to laugh at myself many a time and thank heavens I was in good company when the worst possible balls up were made, otherwise I may have never got over it for eons after the fact. The experience is there to suck up, swirl around and taste. And it has become more possible and more available to more people, and everybody has a story, a dream, a vision. The business has changed for some but for many it is what they growing up into and if it did not. We would never have had the fun we have received from people like Peter Jackson for instance. I enjoy sifting through other peoples work, even the bad stuff because sometimes or should I say in every one of the 'bad ones' there always seems to be at least one good transition or experimentation or cut which is worth trying to remember and later maybe adapt. There are some great and very clever shorts for instance that are just a ball of fun to watch and appreciate that more than fulfils the actual purpose of movie making and that is to inform, educate and most importantly entertain. Art cannot always be 'good' sometimes it has to be downright 'ugly', pathetic and even ensure that your mouth turns downward in horror, in the moment, who knows, maybe bad reactions is what the 'artists' intention might be. Would it sell? Nothing ventured, nothing gained and while the venture for the most successful is as much an adventure for the least successful.

Anton West

You have a great attitude, Glen.

Shari D. Frost

There are 2 sides to every argument I guess. And filmmaking is not the only industry struggling with changes brought on by a technology-enabled DIY culture. (Ask my published novelist friends who are beyond frustrated by the overwhelming volume of self-published junk crowding out sales on Amazon. And then talk to my self-published friends who are so grateful to have had the opportunity to publish and sell their work, some of which is pretty good!) What's interesting to me is that the next generation coming up won't have this conversation. This new reality is the only one they will ever know and work within.

David Thrasher

The same happened to photography when the Kodak Brownie was introduced and suddenly everyone could be a photographer. It was the birth of the snapshot and what we are experiencing now is similar. What's really needed is a way to sort them out that is fair to everyone - one that doesn't favor the incumbents while giving new talent a chance. The same thing has happened for years with screenwriting because everyone who can write a grocery list also thinks they can write. They've never bothered to come up with an adequate solution for that one with the result that the process has become a black box and those who would like to improve and get in have trouble doing so because they don't get any legitimate guidance, just come-ons from screenwriting gurus, contests, and a barrage of screenwriting books all promising the secret.

Glen Eric Huysamer

Oriel. I am going to disagree with you, on a level, as I believe that there is also good art and bad art but that the perception of this depends on the eyes that appraise it. All of civilisation, all of it is 'Art' right down to the shoes we put on our feet, the design of the car we get into, or the colour of a particular ice cream we choose. How can we ever know who is the good artist when we have had one the greatest artist in the history of the world having died a pauper, and who during his lifetime also had to ask spectators of his art to step back from his work so they could appreciate it and understand and see the bigger picture (VonGogh) In the greatest art of our time 'film' we can just look at somebody like Gene Roddenbury who was a policeman before starting to write and who eventually changed the world as we know it by penning Star Trek. Have you actually looked at Peter Jacksons first movie which he entered into a festival, it is almost impossible to think that he went from there to Lord of the Rings. Everybody must always continue to learn their craft, especially this craft of film making. True composition and colour theory you can learn either at art school, university or these days even online. I have worked for and been along side some very great directors and DOP's, and when you talk about composition, and compositing the moment for the frame, I have personally seen the stall' while even the best do a double take, rearrange and correct mistakes, yet that mistake was almost only visible in their own minds. I do not agree with you about poor execution because it is all learning, and any execution of a script is a collaboration of the best possible attempt given at the time it came together. It depends on budget and a whole lot of things but whatever the size of all the coming together, in most cases for the guys doing it at that moment it is the best achievement in the moment and for some that will be good and others it will be bad. However the small budget, bad execution, mixed up, totally break the rules, finished product is just the most fantastic thing for those that are involved in making it and for the close friends and the fact is, it all starts there, The next attempt gets better and that movement from less appreciative viewers to more appreciative movement is part of the 'Artist' journey. It is like that story of the top university student who was top of her class, award winning writer, who approached a best selling author and asked him for advice on how she could get her work published. He asked if she ever tried to self publish online. She immediately goes off on him and tells him of all her accomplishments, her awards her top of the class accolades and her Yale university degree's and she picks up her bag and turns to storm off, but as she does the best selling author calls to her and points to the top of his book where it clearly says selling author....not best. How then do we gauge what is good 'ART' or bad 'ART'...a good film or a bad film. It's like music hits, we will go from mass audiences buying up and loving an all time great Rock star such as Bruce Springsteen and the very next day his history and the entire mass is dancing to....I'm to sexy for my Shirt. And for me it is better to try, than not to try at all. If we look at all the art (paintings) in the world there are so many unknown artists, but who are very successful because they still have a market. And even the greatest artist throughout the history of the world did not start off with a critically acclaimed master piece. The real ART today is melting all the various canvasses together and slowly bubbling up to the surface. Some will not be recognised at all and others only after they pass away. Very few are going to be on the A-list. Hey...but whats wrong with the b-list or the C-list as long as you personally are enjoying the trip and who knows some of your friends might also be enjoying what you do. And if you lucky there will be these strangers who you are never ever going to meet, or know, that for a few minutes will meet you through the 'ART' you produce. In a sense it is the same for the 'Craftsmen' or the Architect or the Tradesmen who put his skill and work into the computer you work on or the car that you drive. Life is all ART. There is no place you can look at and not see ART. Some you will Love and some you will hate but either way, when the Artist has got a reaction from the viewer.......Job done.

Glen Eric Huysamer

Dear Oriel, not everything needs to work. And the real art is in the doing, the trying to do, the failures and the strugglers. It is like the skateboarders, there are some who should definitely not be on it or even close to it because they will probably break a leg on it. Hey: But is that not what's it's all about...'breaking the leg' An artist sets up a camera to film a flower opening up....perfectly...beautiful the next Artist sets up a camera to film a flower opening....perfectly and beautifully.... but in the back ground you have a naked fat lady knitting with needles ...she stands up...sees the flower and picks it off the stem and squashes it... Which is the 'Art'? And who could even choose to compare. Film transcends all 'norms' if one draws lines and are afraid to accept varied possibilities and degrees of like and dislike then one is boxing oneself up and restricting even your own expressions. The form is changing, how long ago would it have been inconceivable that Blare Witch Project could have done what it did. I still stand up and say be careful of claiming to be an Art policeman....It like that song ...about Mrs Robertson

Doug Nelson

I’m just one old man ranting about the present overwhelming amount of cinematic junk I needed to wade through to find very few gems. I’m not talking about art. I’m talking about out of focus, jittery hand held, under/over exposed insipid films that are poorly edited with unusable audio, etc… Because I’m a writer, I’m not a fan of documentaries and yet, those were the best films I reviewed. Now it’s true that everybody starts somewhere and I judge the films I review for a high school festival differently than the ones I judge for the large international festivals. I’m just disappointed in the quality of films I recently had to wade through. Don’t get me started on scripts and screenwriting – I’d need to take more blood pressure medication.

Doug Nelson

Oriel, I understand the concept of art. Some of my photos from the old STEP days are in the San Francisco museum’s permanent collection. I had the pleasure of studying under Ansel Adams and I studied art at the Cleveland museum a long time ago. I’m not talking about the lack/presence of art in films. I’m talking about inept, incompetent amateur filmmakers who are cluttering the landscape with an overwhelming volume of unwatchable stuff. It makes doubly difficult for the true artisans to break through and it’s hard on us old guys who have to review that crap. It’s just my personal rant.

Randy Vampotic

For years everyone complained that the studios made crappy films and the best stuff was in the indie world. So I watched a bunch of indie films. What I came up with was the not very original observation that 90 percent of everything is crap, studio and indie, and maybe five percent is really good. As you pointed out Doug, we're now overwhelmed by such a huge flood of projects that we get slapped by a lot more dead fish before we find a live one. But the good news is that in sheer numbers, there's probably more good material out there, it's just buried in proportionally more bad stuff too. Thankfully, we have gatekeepers like you at the festivals and others who keep it from burning our eyes. Also - and I'm clearly biased on this - writing seems to be the only artistic job on a film that virtually everyone else thinks they can do better than the clown doing it. Would the producer go to the cinematographer and tell him to move the camera to capture the emotion of the scene better? No, but he'll tell the writer how to craft a compelling narrative or what's wrong with a character's dialogue. My partner and I were once hired by a Canadian producer to rewrite a low-budget thriller, flown up to Canada (from LA) on the strength of our previous scripts and recommendations by other producers, completed a full rewrite on a film (already in production) in under 12 hours, then had the producer let his office PA rewrite us on the set. Twice. On the same film. But Vancouver was beautiful in the Fall. I think what we're seeing now is the illogical extension of the "hell, I could do a better job than that" mentality to people who think that just because they didn't like a film they saw, they think they could do the whole thing better. Sadly, they don't realize the thousands of little skills, nuances and rules that pros learn to communicate with the audience. BTW, I'm not complaining about the sublime give and take that goes on between writers, directors and actors to hone a film to a fine point; that's the most awesome part of filmmaking. But, as another writer once said, "When a producer tells you there's something wrong with your script, she's almost always right. When she tells you how to fix it, she's almost always wrong." Rant completed; shutting down.

Glen Eric Huysamer

Doug I can see your frustrations, I can or should I say can't imagine your frustrations at the task you have taken on. I do not envy your viewing situation and I understand the circumstance of your rantings more clearly now. On the broader aspect though, I am here in Africa and I get to watch 'Nollywood' Films and boy, I am sure they are all using one script, different actors followed by different camera angels and stuff. It is so far from quality that Polaris can be considered a short trip. Yet. I can tell you and have witnessed the fan based audiences of these movies, who love and adore them. I skew my head to one side and think, hectic, why?..... and I have to grab myself after watching one (normally when I am visiting with Nigerians living in Cape Town or so on) and slap myself sometimes for sitting through it. But I do land up sitting through one, not because I am enjoying it for the ART but because the audience around me are actually loving it .... what I am saying in truth or trying to say is that from my perspective here in Africa also seeing students and new guys do the art and doing their own thing, for me it is all good anybody good or bad gets to do himself a movie of any sorts we(most of us) we just call it ART. because no matter how bad it is the fact that they got something to show is magick in itself. Most movies here are done with a tube of superglue, I am not even talking about scholar stuff, in South Africa we are doing better but our best works are under the directorship and production teams from abroad, and most of them are not seen as South African movies on the international market except of course if it is about a story that happens in South Africa. For the most part looking over the African film and products especially coming from independent film makers here, it is a far cry from what the USA market standard is, yet many have dedicated audiences who love every minute of this ART...... but I will concede I do not envy the task you have. Goodness Gracious Me! Thousands?

Doug Nelson

I really don’t know about the conundrum between the majors and crappy films; do they produce crappy films because that’s what the audience wants or they foisting off cheap crappy films because of economics or lack of raw material (writing)? Detroit continued to produce giant gas guzzlers that nobody could afford to buy or drive. It’s nothing more than head-in-the-sand (or somewhere else) mismanagement. My rant has more to do with the lack of effort/skill/training/expectations of today’s DSLR (mostly) filmmakers. I just wish they’d try a little harder.

Glen Eric Huysamer

Hi Doug Nollywood West Africa, I don't speak the local languages there but I think the main reason for the lack of quality is mostly costs, maybe, infrastructure and so on, It does not matter where actually you are in Africa, or what language it is, if a film is out there it seems to gain some kind of following, because I think it is local and even though the US-American film always take most of the big theatre screen space.. there are guys here selling their DVD at bus stations and Taxi Ranks even here in South Africa ....and you will not believe that these movies are even pirated. Half the time I don't even know what is going on in the flick....and there always needs to be somebody catching me up on the story because of language differences but the folk here....... love it. You can go into many 'shabeens' here as long as there is not a big sport game on you will often see the audience engrossed in some film sequel number 33. South Africa has also taken off on this and there are two guys here that have created a huge underground following for themselves. Most started on video cam, now I am sure they have bettered their equipment but it is all mostly shot from the hip, and they have a style about it.... It is not good quality by any means .....I mean even the DVD copies are probably printed on old canon print machines who knows... The films themselves do function though. I can understand your point having to sift through thousands of not so good, lazy films, I was at AFM one year and I virtually freaked out about how many Zombie Movies were everywhere. I came to the conclusion that this must have been student film subject for the year kind of thing. I mean how many guys dressed in prosthetics and torn clothes can one film. Here it is simple love stories, with cheating wives and or of a child that is sick, or it is comedy, mostly slap stick, face pulling stuff virtually reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin in Africa, or The Three Stooges type characters which the children scream about. Don't get me wrong either we do have very sophisticated mainstream stuff here as well, I am talking about the level that may be parallel to what you are referring to when you were ranting about stuff you needed to judge for festivals. Here the guys don't have so many festivals and the stuff they make they need to sell so they continue making new stuff, and selling can mean selling home printed DVD's out of the boot of a car and doing a major amount of slog. I reckon it is a different ball game here. Different levels, different markets. Therefore my feeling for the 'ART' bad/good I see a different kind of a struggle for lack of a better explanation but also fully understanding your perspective now... and you may be correct. I just hope that those that know who they are out there and are reading this that they should take heed on how good they got it and that there is no excuse for not always doing the extra effort especially in America where there is much more resources available (or am I wrong about the resources thing?)

Lane Wyrick

I think the motivation for creating a project has to be that you have something to say that you believe in, not that you want to be famous. If you believe in a project, you will take it with you even if it takes years to get out to an audience. What if no one sees your film, does that make it not good? I think people judging how good a film is by how much it makes at the box office is just flawed. Also, I think a lot of people are tricked into the idea that if they make a horror film and can call themselves a director, they have a future as a director. Sure, if that's what you want to do for your career is be a horror film director, but if later you want to do something inspiring don't think people will take you seriously. Your films become your calling card, and so you can get pigeon-holed because you want to jump forward in your career the easy way. Anyway, I think that the reason for such a glut of bad material is that people want to be instantly famous before they've learned how to tell a good story. I don't think that indies can work together to solve this. All I've seen at festivals are individuals doing their own thing, not really a community of people working together for the betterment of the viewers. Each person has a responsibility to become a better storyteller, which will happen as they mature in their craft.

Randy Vampotic

Lane, I think there's a lot to what you say. Those who have no particular drive to be story tellers or actual filmmakers, but are just looking for the quick route to fame used to be largely discouraged by the high cost of admission and the daunting learning curve of making movies. Not anymore. Hi-def equipment is cheap, there are probably three kids on every block who can edit somewhat and there are so many people trying to actually learn various filmmaking crafts that you can crew up relatively cheaply. This is the same problem music has suffered from for years: Yes, if you truly want to become a musician and artist, then it takes time, talent and work to learn how to read and write music, play actual instruments and arrange compositions, but if you just want to get something out there and hope somebody stumbles upon it, you can do that pretty easily on a computer now, hell even an iPad. No real investment (other than a little money) required. But I disagree about the festivals not really being able to do anything about it. By being discerning in their selections they can make sure that the posers don't get access to the one thing they really want - an audience. At least an audience of influential viewers. Still nothing we can do about Youtube.

Shadow Dragu-Mihai

Who cares? The losers will filter themselves out, just as in the rest of the world.

Tony S.

People can do more to assure bad films don't see the light of day:

- Don't work for free under the guise of "we're going to submit to festivals" or "for your reel." Keep in mind many of these people will use you and not have any respect after you sweat for them. Filmmakers who are serious raise money, pay and feed people.

- As someone suggested, ask why do you want to make this film? Do you have something to say or is this merely to fulfill something within you. Ask questions.

- Read the script carefully. Things generally don't get better if it ain't on the page.

- Have any professionals offered feedback on the script? Is it positive? Those filmmakers who believe they've written "Citizen Kane" without anyone agreeing probably haven't.

- Ask what the filmmaker's post-shoot, post-completion plan entails.

- Do the filmmakers have their ducks in order, i.e. a DP and particularly a sold sound person - what lacks in most amateur production. Ask who they are and what is their cred. Good films aren't made with a DSLR's built-in mike.

- Have the filmmakers prepped or is it "let's just shoot." A well-made film is planned and has contingencies.

- People don't choose filmmaking, filmmaking chooses them. It's a good sign when you see that hunger.

As stated, not everyone is meant to be a filmmaker.

Sure, we all have to start somewhere. Why not experiment on your own and improve without foisting crap on an unsuspecting public. Intern. Take classes. Align with seasoned pros and bring them coffee while keeping your eyes and ears wide open and your mouth shut. And be honest. Do I really have talent?

Good luck.

Debbie Croysdale

Folks mention Film Festivals quite a lot in this thread, but not all Film Festivals are tard with the same brush. Some are class, and some in themselves are the "posers" and the films they choose are not for the love of film, but reflect the business they run.

Mike Heff

The cream will rise to the top.

Tony S.

Agreed, but wouldn't it be wonderful if cats had more to lap up.

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