Brandon Jones (left) and John Venable
Plenty of big-budget films have been shot in North Texas over the years, everything from Bonnie and Clyde to RoboCop. But beneath those Hollywood productions is a steady stream of smaller films made by people who call the area home. Producer Brandon Jones and director John Venable are two of those people. Their latest effort is Karma Police, a character-driven suspense story coming Tuesday to DVD about an IT guy (Chamblee Ferguson) recruited by a secret organization that ensures that good people are rewarded and bad people are punished. Once he gets involved, though, he realizes that playing God has its drawbacks.
During a recent conversation, Venable and Jones discussed their desire to ground the film in Dallas, what it will take to bolster the North Texas filmmaking scene and how the new channels of digital distribution can help out the little guy:
Art&Seek: The film is authentically Dallas. How much of that came from a desire to set it here and how much came from just the fact that you were shooting here?
Brandon Jones: It was a conscious choice. John and I are both from here and we have a local cast and crew, but my personal goal in this was to create a postcard of what you can do with a film of this magnitude shot in Dallas. We knew we didn’t have a lot of money, but we wanted to use big location and big, iconic images. So you have the great shot looking out the 50th floor in that conference room and you see Reunion Tour. We’ve got the Magnolia Hotel, the police station in downtown Dallas.
John Venable: Anytime Hollywood ever does Dallas, there’s always big, dumb cowboy hats and boots and steers. Stereotypical stuff that really has nothing to do with Dallas.
B.J.: To get a big location like a skyscraper or the office tower that has the keyhole cut out of it, we literally had to call in favors. And it was always the guy who didn’t need to help us who came through, saying, “I’d love to help you guys out,” giving us an embarrassment of riches to be able to do that. And it was seriously no big deal to any one of them. And these are guys who have big, important businesses. They were like, “Oh, sure – how many days do you need to shoot in my office?” We had to take pictures of people’s desks in the offices, because we had to clear out stuff that identified them as them. So we’d just spent 14 hours on set and we had to painstakingly put everything back. And it’s not like we had a team of people to do this. After John spends a whole day directing, he’s back in there moving some guy’s picture back.
A&S: There were some funny cameos in the film – from Gary Cogill playing an apartment painter and attorney and AFI Festival Chairman Steven Stodghill in a bit part – plus some very recognizable local faces in small parts, including local actor Nye Cooper and WaterTower Theatre artistic director Terry Martin. How did you get those people involved?
J.V.: Gary comes from the fact that I’ve been a movie reviewer in the past and he and I are friends. Terry was actually cast because he came in and auditioned. I’m a theater actor locally, and our casting director, Lynn Ambrose, brought in all the Dallas actors that she thought would be best for these roles. And probably 50 percent of them were stage actors that I knew and worked with or had seen their work.
B.J.: Which presented a whole other set of issues for John, because he’s worked with these people and now he’s got to cast them in the movie. I know it was challenging for him to balance the direction and the personal relationships, but I think he did a great job. I think that speaks to John’s reputation in the community – that people who could have easily played a bigger part chose to be in this film and take a role where they had one line.
A&S: Brandon, with your company, FilmFrog Productions, you’ve had some pretty good success in producing some small films shot in the area, including Shtickmen a few years back. What was it that you saw in Karma Police that made you think it would be a worthwhile project for you to get involved with?
B.J.: John told me when he gave me the script that he was going to make this movie. We deal all the time with people who say, “I want to make this movie, I just need to raise the money.” Or, “I’ve got people who will give me the money.” John was making this movie, so I had confidence that it was going to get made. When you deal with this all day long, you really don’t believe that most things are going to get made. But John had it in his mind that he was going to make this movie, whether he had 10 cents or 10 bucks or 10 million bucks. This was going to get made one way or another.
A&S: But when producing a movie, part of the job is setting up and making the movie, and part of it is figuring out how you are going to sell and distribute the movie. So when you read the script, it must have sounded like something that would have an audience.
B.J.: Independent films are very difficult to sell anyway. The fact that this has some action and suspense – I felt that we were really going to be able to capitalize on that on the distribution end. Even though the beginning of it starts out really character driven, it does have a dramatic shift in the film where it becomes a suspense-crime thriller almost. So I thought it was marketable just reading the script. And then being a producer who was going to manage the distribution side, being able to help guide things along to specific elements to make sure we had the right elements to hedge our bets was important to me.
A&S: What do you think needs to happen for North Texas to be more of a hub for film and television production?
J.V.: It’s simple: competitive incentives. We took the first step by actually getting incentives now that there’s a 5 percent incentive.
B.J.: There’s a new bill in front of the house this year to dramatically increase that, and the governor’s on board with it. … John’s right, absolutely 100 percent – we need competitive incentives of some type. The second thing I think we need is we need to get the investment community here to realize that you can make films good investments. But my personal opinion is that we need to focus on films that are below the $5 million mark, because it is so hard to make money making movies. We should really be focused on making movies that are $250,000 to a million and a half dollars and make good, quality films that are returning the investment here, so that the investment community sees that as a good investment.
A&S: So were you able to take advantage of any of that incentive money?
J.V.: No, it wasn’t in place when we were shooting, and even if it was, you have to spend a minimum of $1 million on film to get the incentives, and our level of budget was way, way below that.
A&S: So where will people be able to find the movie?
B.J.: We’ve put together a campaign to help raise the awareness of the film, and our intent is to drive all that traffic to places like Netflix and Blockbuster Online. It will be available for purchase at Amazon, DVD Empire, Film Baby. So that will be our initial domestic DVD release. And it will be available at some brick-and-mortars and video stores. But the dynamic of those outlets is changing all the time as well. And the economy has really affected a lot of that. The second step is we’ll be on iTunes and NetFlix Watch Now, so we’ll be taking advantage of digital download and alternative, new distribution channels. And then our third and fourth step is to work to try and get some kind of television deal and then push it out internationally.
A&S: All of those new distribution channels have to be huge for someone distributing an independent movie.
B.J.: A lot of what [digital download outlets] are asking independents to do now with films like this is they’ll make it available online if we can create the demand and the fan base. They almost don’t have to take the risk anymore of purchasing 20,000 units to sit on the shelf.
A&S: John, your frequent writing partner is Channel 11’s Jay Gormley. I know you are just getting this film out there, but have you two started work on your next project?
J.V.: We’re still working on getting $30,000 Millionaires made. That’s a script that we’ve had finished for several years now and we actually started pre-production on it before we started on Karma Police. We had the casting director out of L.A. and had John Gries from Napoleon Dynamite attached to it and Dominique Swain, and then just the money didn’t happen.
A&S.: Sounds like you need to hit up some of those $30,000 millionaires.
J.V.: Yeah, if you could just put that on your Discover card … oh wait, nobody takes Discover.
The Art&Seek Q&A is a weekly discussion with a person involved in the arts in North Texas. Check back next Thursday for another installment.