Pix built to beat band

Indie record labels making movies a sound investment

Not many people would cite “Glory Daze,” the 1996 Gen-X drama starring Ben Affleck and Alyssa Milano, as offering life-altering inspiration.

But Joe Escalante does.

Escalante, bassist for the punk band the Vandals, supervised the pic’s soundtrack release on his Kung Fu label. Even before the pic bowed, it sold 10,000 copies — convincing Escalante that if he made his own punk-themed movie with a quality soundtrack, he would have a hit on his hands.

The major studios have always tried to cash in on the public’s love affair with music by putting popular musicians on the bigscreen.

In an era when congloms are touting corporate synergy, this trend has beefed up: Warner Bros. scored with the strategy last March, guiding “Exit Wounds,” starring rapper DMX, to a robust $52 million domestic gross.

Now, independent music labels are getting into the act — not just in supplying music for pics, but in creating the movies themselves.

They have realized that with the right economic model, they don’t need the studios to put out profitable pics.

Charter members of this growing club include rap impresarios Suge Knight and Master P, and reggae pioneer Chris Blackwell, all of whom have produced music-themed indie films.

The rationale behind this synergy is not unlike that of media conglom AOL Time Warner, but on a much smaller scale.

The key, according to Escanlante, is to make the pic niche-specific with a budget in line with potential sales. Kung Fu’s pics are released straight-to-video, with little or no marketing, allowing the soundtrack and word of mouth to drive sales.

And while studios’ music-themed pics often are budgeted modestly, the indie-label product is micro-budgeted.

Rap producer Knight, who heads Tha Row Records and Suge Knight Films, melded music and film with 1994’s “Murder Was the Case,” an 18-minute short shot in two days on an $800,000 budget and starring Snoop Doggy Dog.

“After we produced (Snoop’s debut album) ‘Doggystyle,’ I said, ‘Why don’t we do something totally different? Instead of making a regular video, I’d like to do a short movie.’ People said I was throwing my money away. But I knew we were doing the soundtrack as well.”

Released direct-to-video simultaneously with the eponymous single, the pic’s soundtrack sold 2 million copies. The film, which has been out of print the past four years, was recently released on DVD with extra footage to meet consumer demand.

Similarly, 31-year-old rapper Master P and his No Limit shingle have produced a handful of films on ultra-lean budgets, reaping enviable profits.

Consider “I Got the Hook-Up,” the 1998 action comedy which featured Master P as a writer, producer and star. Pic cost a mere $2.5 million to make and grossed more than four times that during its theatrical run.

One recent example came about when tyro helmer Jeff Richardson asked Escalante to oversee the soundtrack for an indie pic he was putting together. The bassist instead offered to finance, produce and release the pic through Kung Fu’s distribution network if Richardson infused punk sensibilities into the script.

The result was “That Darn Punk,” a feature largely shot on a soundstage behind Kung Fu’s offices for $21,000. Pic stars Escalante as a musician in a series of misadventures reminiscent of “Repo Man.”

Since bowing last March, “Punk” has sold 6,000 video copies, with the soundtrack — featuring songs from Escalante’s Vandals and punk greats Rancid and Pennywise — bringing in more than $85,000.

Escalante, who has two more films in the works, holds a J.D. from Loyola Law School and spent four years working in CBS’ business affairs division. He keeps costs down by applying the “do it yourself” punk ethos to his filmmaking.

“We used to make records ourselves without a bunch of crap that didn’t need to be there,” says Escalante, who is editing his second feature, “Selweyn’s Nuts.” “Now we are doing the same with movies.”

Blackwell, renowned for shepherding acts such as Bob Marley and U2, has applied a similar strategy with his Palm Pictures. The outfit has a number titles under its belt, including 1998 reggae actioner “Third-World Cop,” which features music from producers Sly & Robbie; and “Lock Down,” a hip-hop drama exec produced by Master P.

For Palm, these pics serve as an extention of the increasing importance of the visual image to artists in the music world.

“You can’t break a pop act anymore without a musicvideo,” says Palm Pictures prexy David Beal. “Chris’s philosophy from day one has been that these two worlds (of music and film) were coming together.”

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