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1) What were some of the key film noir/western films that have had the biggest influence/inspiration for you?
Some of the film noirs that had the biggest influence on me include Gordon Wiles’s The Gangster, White Heat, Dark Passage (which also happens to be one my favorite noir films of all time), Sin City, and The Big Sleep. As far as Westerns, I’d say you can see a lot of Once Upon a Time in the West in this film. I’m a big fan of anything and everything by Sergio Leone, Tarantino and Sergio Corbucci.
February 1st, 2018
by Mark Schwab
Usher Morgan is an award-winning film director, producer and studio executive residing in New York City. Morgan started his career in book publishing and later became involved with film production and distribution. He produced his first documentary film "The Thought Exchange" starring David Friedman and Lucie Arnaz in 2012, followed by his directorial debut, the award-winning short film "Prego". Morgan's first feature narrative film, PICKINGS, will be released to theaters on March 2nd, 2018 (for a list of theaters and additional information visit www.PickingsFilm.com), followed by the horror film short, "Trapped Inside". Morgan's directing style is influenced primarily by film-noir and spaghetti westerns.
2) You seem to have had very good success with your short films...were they helpful in making the transition to raising money for feature films?
Fundraising didn’t really turn out that well for us. We had an Indiegogo campaign that failed miserably - the person I trusted with it left the campaign a week into it and I ended up with a dead campaign that raised less than $3,000. So when it ended, we were faced with the option of either giving up on the idea of making this film the way we wanted to make it or going on a never-ending campaign to raise funds from investors and producers who didn’t know who we were and had no reason to trust us. A lot of people said “no” to the idea. The consensus was that we couldn’t make the movie on the budget that we did. In the end, I used my own money to fund this film. I took out loans, sold assets and maxed out credit cards.
3) How did the script for your current feature film "Pickings" come to be written?
In the beginning, Pickings was written as a short film, but as time went by I found myself obsessing over these characters and the storyline felt like it could and should be developed further. It took about three months to put the first draft together, which ended up being an unmanageable 260 page-long script. I took a hard life-lesson in how to write to budget after I learned that we couldn’t afford to produce the movie I wanted to make in the way that we wanted to make it, so I had to do a lot of trimming and creative cutting before we were ready to shoot it. Overall, from the day I wrote the first line to the day I shot the first shot it took about 7 months. But it didn’t really stop there. As we came across some production difficulties (due to the lack of budget) I had to rewrite some pieces during reshoots, so the script began evolving along as production progressed. You can say that I was writing the script until the last day of shooting.
Usher Morgan directs on the set of "Pickings"
4) Did you have a budget - an amount so to speak - in mind when you wrote "Pickings"?
The first budget I had in mind was for $500K, but after our fundraising campaign died, I decided to make it for whatever I could afford to make it for. So it turned out to be around $350K.
5) $350,000 is still an impressive amount of money for most indie filmmakers. For you, what is the biggest difference between making a feature for say...$50,000 and $350,000?
In the realm of indie filmmaking, there really isn’t much of a difference between making a $350K film and making a $50K film, they’re both considered micro-budget films. Both would put you in the same box of creative problem solving due to a lack of budget and in both cases, you need to act as your own producer and pay careful attention to the film’s bottom line. Especially if you’re working on an ambitious film such as ours. In a way, it’s actually easier to make a $50,000 film since you have less overhead, you run a smaller crew and it takes fewer days to shoot and most often the shoot is contained to a single location, which makes life a whole lot easier. At the end of the day, it all comes down to what kind of movie you want to make and how you plan to market it and distribute it when it’s done.
6) "Pickings" is getting an actual theatrical release through AMC Independent on March 2nd which is fantastic. How has that experience been and what advice would you give filmmakers about distribution in regards to theatrical and online/VOD?
When it came to Pickings, I have to admit that getting AMC Independent to say yes to the film gave me the confidence I needed to approach additional theaters, film buyers, and expand my distribution strategy to the point where I’m negotiating with foreign sales agents and planning TV pitches to stations I never thought this movie would get into, so I truly owe them a big debt of gratitude in that regard. And when it comes to indie filmmakers, I believe that film marketing and distribution should get just as much attention as any other part of film-making. Not doing so can ruin your chances of getting to film #2.
Ultimately, you need to be an entrepreneur when it comes to indie film marketing and distribution. Distributors, theaters and agents love working with indie filmmakers who engage in promotion, branding, marketing and distribution of their own films – because they know that they are working with a business-person who has their own best interest in mind, and that takes care of everyone else. Too many indie filmmakers give away their film to small-time distributors and never see a penny – that’s heartbreaking to me. If you have the budget, the great script and a name actor in your movie, then you’re all set – once your movie is done, you can send it out to festivals and negotiate distribution deals with real distributors. But, if you engage in low-budget indie filmmaking and you have no names in your film, then you need to sell, market and distribute your film on your own. In the case of Pickings, I knew the biggest challenge would be marketing a movie without a well-known actor (or actors). So my solution was to make it slick, make it look beautiful, sound beautiful, have amazing effects, beautiful makeup, etc. (in other words, stand out!) These were not only my directorial dreams, but also realistic solutions to distribution problems. And if, like me, you don’t have the budget to hire a name actor, you need to figure out your hook before you ever turn on the camera. Keep distribution in mind while writing and making your movie, and when it’s done you’ll have something you can use to sell your movie with. Another mistake that many indie filmmakers make when they make their first movie is that they don’t budget for marketing and distribution, I made that mistake before and you can bet that I’ll never make it again. If you asked me to produce and direct your film under a $50,000 budget, I will make it for $40,000 and keep $10,000 aside for PR, marketing and distribution when the movie’s done. Otherwise, you’ll make a $50,000 movie and end up with a product that you can’t afford to market, so you’ll sell it to the first distributor who’s willing to promise you a 35% split and $0 advance. You’ll never see a penny. If you budget marketing and distribution, create a kickass marketing plan and start selling the movie to theaters and put it in VOD/DVD/Blu-Ray yourself, you’ll control all the profits and recoup your investment or your investor’s money back. This way – YOU are the distributor, and you are in control. In my opinion, that’s the best way to go about it, at least until you are put in a position where you can make a $1M+ PGA film with name actors and a big festival premiere strategy. Baby steps.
7) What is the biggest mistake you see today's indie filmmakers making and how can they avoid it?
Filmmakers are artists by nature, and artists are not typically drawn to entrepreneurship. However, today entrepreneurship is a requirement. There is so much competition out there, it’s insane. Sure, you can make an amazing movie without a name actor and submit it to Sundance and maybe you’ll win, get discovered and get a distribution deal or a financing deal for your 2nd film, and if you truly believe that that’s what’s going to happen, do that. But if you want to ensure your future in this business, you need to develop some entrepreneurial skills. Basically, you need to be a business-person. You need to be able to make a great movie, then turn around and sell it, market it, distribute it, make money off it – then use these profits to fund your next movie, either partially or fully. That’s how you make it in this business – you make movies and sell them, building a track record as you go along.
Finding the balance between art and business is not easy, but if you can find it, you’ll win the game. The secret is knowing what you can do, and what you can’t do. If you don’t have a business bone in your body, you need to hire or partner-up with someone who does, just make sure it’s someone you trust – make some short films with them, get to know them before entrusting them with your first feature, and you’ll have a producing partner for life.
9) Our traditional final question: For all of the filmmakers out there feeling overwhelmed/frustrated/discouraged, what words of encouragement/hope/insight do you have for them?
There is no substitute for hard work. Ultimately, if you love movies, you need to become actively obsessed with making them. And whenever you obsess about anything, you’ll find a way to make it happen by staying focused and working hard- that’s just the law of the universe, it’s how the world works. So just sit your ass down and write, write, write – once you write your movie, you need to start obsessing about making it, you realize that time is running out and life is passing you by, so you get to work. You budget it (yes, even if you don’t have the money), you create a shot list, you invite your friends to rehearse is, you do a table read, you start getting into it. All of a sudden, you find yourself making phone calls to investors. Hard work is like magic – it fuels you. So if you love movies and you have a lot of energy and enthusiasm about making them, you’ll make movies. If you spend 90% of your free time obsessing over your next movie, I guarantee it – you’ll be making your next movie within a matter of months/weeks. Things will seem to “magically” come together. Be obsessed, work hard and never quit – you’ll get there.
8) You've had a lot of experience as a Producer. What do you feel is your main job (or jobs) as a Producer for a film?
The first thing I’d say is staying on budget and remaining on-schedule. It’s not easy and at first, the producer in you and the director in you will battle it out on a daily basis. Anyone who views himself/herself an artist will HATE producing at first, until you learn that the producer in you can also be an artist, and help the director in you to make wiser decisions that benefit the film, both artistically and financially. It’s a delicate balance, but one that you learn to appreciate. My second role as a producer is problem solving. Problems will always come up and you can’t always anticipate them (although having experience helps), so when they do come up, it’s the producer’s job to keep the boat afloat and resolve any problems on/off set without setting off any alarms or causing a panic on set. Again, it’s a delicate balance. Trust your instincts and learn to delegate, that’s important.