By: Lucy Sosa
The best film trailers often serve as the audience’s ideal window into a movie’s narrative soul. In mere moments, they must introduce the primary characters and convey a sense of the story’s arc — all while getting filmgoers excited enough to think, “I can’t wait to see that!”
One might sit through hundreds of trailers — if not, thousands — over a lifetime of going to the movies. Still, it might never dawn on you that it’s someone’s sole job to cut multi-hour productions into quickly digestible — and these days, hopefully viral — microcosms as thrilling as the main attraction itself (and let’s admit it, sometimes more so). But working as a trailer editor is how award-winning independent filmmaker Kern Saxton pays the bills and continues to hone his cinematic skill set when he’s not busy making his own films.
Saxton moved to Los Angeles with ambitions to become a director after receiving his BFA degree in Filmmaking from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) in 2004. But without much professional experience under his belt, he realized he’d have to teach himself how to edit and write if he wanted to make it as a working filmmaker.
Saxton actually credits his trailer-editing career with keeping his cinematic wits on point. It’s also taught him the marketing elements necessary to sell a movie in the real world, and how other filmmakers get their projects in front of distributors. Those insights came in handy when directing and co-writing his debut feature, Sushi Girl — a 2012 low-budget horror-crime hybrid starring Noah Hathaway, Mark Hamill, Michael Biehn, Danny Trejo, and James Duval.
Sushi Girl proved a smashing success on the festival circuit: tickets to its premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival sold out within 24 hours. Sushi Girl went on to be distributed in North America by Phase 4 Films and Magnet Releasing, as well as being sold to numerous international territories around the world.
Despite its incipient popularity, Sushi Girl proved a true-life victim of Internet piracy. Saxton’s artistic labor of love failed to recoup its budget after an HD version leaked online; it would end up being downloaded on torrent sites as many times as first-run studio blockbusters produced on $100-plus million dollar budgets. A friend of Saxton’s calculated that if everyone who downloaded the film had paid just one dollar to view it, Sushi Girl would’ve made its budget back 10 times over.
At a bustling outdoor café on Hollywood’s famous Melrose Avenue strip, CreativeFuture’s Lucy Sosa sat down with Saxton to find out more about his surprisingly levelheaded response to the people who stole his film, and what it’s like to start over professionally after experiencing the effects of content piracy firsthand. As well, Saxton explains why securing a budget to produce an independent film is harder than ever, and how trailer editing proved to be the job that allows him to survive and cope while he establishes his auteur bona fides.
Lucy Sosa: Did you have an epiphany where you discovered that filmmaking was your calling?
Kern Saxton: I don’t know when exactly that happened. When I was a kid, I used to steal my dad’s video camera and make parody movies with my friends. I made a short parody of Fight Club in high school, sold VHS copies out of a briefcase between classes, and quickly became the go-to guy for students who wanted to make a video – usually for a pep rally or school assembly. So, it became rather obvious I should go to film school. When I moved to Los Angeles after graduating from UNCSA’s directing program, I didn’t know many people out here – but I had a DVX100, which helped me land a couple of jobs. I started making more serious shorts and web shows, and was able to support myself by cutting sizzle reels and such.
I came to Hollywood to be a director, so I asked myself, “What do I have to do now to eventually do that?” When I was just starting out, I had to learn how to shoot stuff competently and then put it together in a coherent fashion, so I thought, “Oh, I suppose I have to learn to write well, too.” I had a solid foundation from film school, but never saw myself as a writer. I wrote a few scripts that really became crash courses in the discipline – and I learned a lot from my co-writers.
I’ve picked up a few tricks they employed on various collaborations. Dan Murphy showed me how to make the most out of mini-slugs. Now we have a script that’s an Academy Nicholl quarterfinalist called Stanley Kubrick’s Moonshot Odyssey. And, of course, I wrote Sushi Girl with Destin Pfaff, which is how I came to direct my first feature. So, I think I’ve always been a filmmaker at heart, it was just a matter of doing all the jobs and figuring out how to do them well.
LS: Which of those roles have you found you’re best at?
KS: I’ll tell you what I do the most of: editing. I edit a lot of trailers to make ends meet when I’m between films. It’s helped me understand the marketing side of things more fully. I don’t look at a project and automatically see the trailer line, but I’ve learned what marketers need to sell a movie. A lot of my time is spent cutting a two-hour movie down to ninety seconds.
The trick is to keep it cohesive and exciting: How little can you show people and not confuse them? Which pieces best communicate the story and which ones can you leave out? Since trailer editing is all about efficiency, it makes you really sharp. It also helps you to be a better director.
LS: How so?
KS: Because being a good editor means knowing what’s crucial to the story. You know what you need and what you don’t need in any given scene. You know what will and won’t work in the editing room when you’re setting up a shot. It’s especially useful when you’re running out of time, or light, and you need to cut your shot list down.
People say a film is written three times: the first time is when you write a script, the second is when you shoot it, and the third is when it all gets cut together. Each of those processes takes different skills, and a solid knowledge of editing helps clarify all of them.
LS: How does it feel cutting other people’s films so you can make money to make your own films?
KS: It really depends on the material you’re given. Since you don’t know what’s coming down the pipe, you never know what genre you’re going to be handling next. I think it helps round out my skillset. You get to do stuff that pushes the limits of perception, or calculate the minimum number of beats before a punchline is no longer funny. Sometimes you watch a movie or get notes from a filmmaker and think, “Wow, this guy really knows what he’s doing.”
I cut a trailer for a movie called Closet Monster that I thought was very well done, and I’m really proud of that trailer. Matt Johnson’s debut feature The Dirties was another – I was able to work with my Sushi Girl composer Fritz Myers on an original track for that one. My trailer for Robert Duvall’s A Night in Old Mexico received some praise from IndieWire, too.
I also really like the trailer I cut for a movie Spike Lee executive produced called The Girl Is In Trouble. Apparently, Spike Lee wasn’t sure he wanted to attach his name to the marketing materials, but when he saw the trailer, he said, “Yeah, that’s cool. I’ll put my name on that.” So, yeah – it can be really rewarding. But you never know what you’re going to get.
LS: It seems like an unpredictable ecosystem to work in.
KS: It can definitely become frustrating, especially if you’re working with a filmmaker who doesn’t understand marketing and makes choices that hinder the effectiveness of the trailer. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than a moment you know will be gold, but it gets squashed because of politics or overthinking. I’m not saying a trailer can make or break a film, but I think it’s a crucial tool for getting an audience to commit to seeing a movie. If you don’t stick the landing, you can really shoot yourself in the foot.
I’ve also cut a lot of bargain-bin VOD trailers. That’s when I realized I’d gotten trailer editing down to a science. That’s when it becomes a grind. There was a point when I was really stretching the limits of what was possible – often needing to turn a bad movie into a good trailer.
LS: You’ve characterized trailer editing as something you do in between your own directing projects. But can it also be a viable career choice on its own?
KS: It’s not as consistent as I would like, since it’s a matter of what filmmakers and distributors need and when they need it, but it keeps me sane. You get to see what’s out there and what other people are doing. Thanks to trailer editing, I watch a lot of movies I never thought I’d watch. Most importantly, you get to see what people are selling to distributors and how distributors are selling those films to audiences. It gives you an interesting insight into the whole game. You get a better sense of what works and what doesn’t.
LS: I want to talk about your movie Sushi Girl. How did you react when you saw it was being downloaded illegally?
KS: It was terrifying, but at first it felt like a kind of badge of honor. I mean, people liked the movie enough to steal it. That was a first for me. Our movie was downloaded at a rate about neck-and-neck with The Hobbit. Both films were out at the same time, and their numbers on torrent sites were about equal. When I saw this happening, I thought “Shit! I need to do something.” I posted on pirate sites saying, “This is my movie. We’re not a studio. We’re not rich. We’re a bunch of starving artists. I’m glad you’re interested enough to steal the movie —but if you like it, I really hope you’ll pay for it in some form. Movies like this need every dollar they can get so artists can make more movies that you can enjoy.” If everyone who downloaded Sushi Girl gave us one dollar, I probably wouldn’t be having this conversation with you right now.
LS: What did it feel like when it finally sunk in that Sushi Girl was not going to make its money back?
KS: It never really hit me because I always hoped it would gain steam. When we saw it being downloaded that much, we thought it might translate into actual sales, but it didn’t.
LS: Why did you think that?
KS: It was gaining such notoriety online. We thought it would somehow inspire people to pick up a Blu-ray or go buy a movie ticket. I think a big part of the problem was that Sushi Girl was leaked in HD. Once a high quality copy is out there in the wild, it’s pretty much game over. What’s really disconcerting is that the pirates had a Blu-ray copy before I did. I was waiting to see the final product well before the release date, and it popped up on the torrent sites – a month before it was supposed to hit store shelves! The guy who uploaded it had a photograph of him holding the actual case, and I saw the face of the disc and said, “So that’s the design they went with, huh?” My guess is it came from a replication plant or a distribution center. There are way too many leaks to plug in the pipeline.
LS: How are you going to make sure this doesn’t happen again? What did you learn from that experience that you’ll bring to future projects?
KS: For me, it’s about making sure I’m [financially] taken care of out of the production budget. That means I might not make as much money as if I took a percentage of the profits, assuming it’s a successful picture. I need to be able to pay myself for the amount of work being done, knowing how long it’s all going to take to complete. If there is anything on the back end, that ends up being icing on the cake. For a film like Sushi Girl, the margins are very slim. It never ceases to amaze me that people who pirate films believe everyone who makes a movie is a millionaire. It couldn’t be further from the truth.
At the same time, there are others who are shocked to hear you look at filmmaking as a business proposition, as if it’s against the rules to make money from an artistic endeavor. Filmmaking is not a cheap venture. We have investors to repay. I think a big part of ensuring a viable future for cinema, at least for independent productions, is to help the audience understand and hopefully better appreciate the circumstances surrounding the independent film business.
Audiences need to know that their actions have an adverse effect on the industry. They complain about sequels and remakes, but that’s all they spend their money on. They complain about rising ticket prices, but they’re staying at home – causing the inflation. And they demand something new and different, but then don’t support it when it’s presented to them. We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.
LS: How do you wake up each morning still hopeful in the face of this ongoing struggle as a filmmaker?
KS: I could be really snarky right now! I think you really have to love it. I don’t know how it is with other people, but when I have a vision bouncing around in my head, it’s a slow build of pressure that I just have to get out. It’s really a compulsion: I see something and it just gnaws at me until I figure it out. But I hesitate to say I’d do it for free if I had to. It should be my choice to give my art away or to charge a fee. That’s why piracy sucks. I don’t think any artist should be forced to work for free. It’s demoralizing, and it distracts us from addressing the issues we should be focused on – especially in times like these.
LS: Consciously or not, people seem to assume that if you’ve made a film, you must be loaded.
KS: People don’t realize most creatives aren’t like George Lucas or Martin Scorsese. Those guys never have to work again if they don’t want to. That’s not how it works for guys like me. Independent filmmakers are relegated to making movies for $5 million or less, and usually for far less than $1 million. It might sound like a lot of money, but it isn’t. When you make a movie for $30,000-$50,000, people are like, “Wow, that’s great we can do this on such a small budget.” But that’s not a sustainable model. If you could make a movie for $30,000 and guarantee it could sell for ten times that, it would be more attractive, but that’s not how it works. Those are the exceptions to the rule. Most indie productions are lucky to sell for $25,000. For my next movie, I’m looking to secure a higher budget so I can guarantee myself a decent paycheck during the several years it will take to make it.
LS: How hard is that to do?
KS: So far, it’s been rather difficult and it seems to be getting worse. I keep hearing about how investors are drying up, how companies don’t want to take any chances. It’s all about low-hanging fruit right now. So, for my next feature, The Hard Count, I’ve engaged a casting director and we have a list of actors we can get. We’ll present that to distribution and production companies. They have to run their numbers to see what can be done financially. A lot of the projects in this budget range are put together by international pre-sales, and they want to look at who’s popular overseas and will bring in substantial box office numbers.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to matter whether the material is any good or not. People like our script but are reticent to take a chance on it because it doesn’t fit neatly into a box. At the same time, they’re churning out utterly forgettable straight-to-video actioners for $5 million a pop because they can pay a big name actor to show up.
LS: Does that aspect of the filmmaking world interest you?
KS: It’s more just something you have to deal with — another part of the innate process of making movies. I certainly wouldn’t do it that way if I didn’t have to. I think it’s actually antithetical to the art.
LS: Is there any advice you want to get out to other filmmakers as a result of your experiences in the Hollywood trenches?
KS: Know what you’re getting into. Protect yourself or be willing to weather extreme failure and poverty. People need to understand the industry is an ecosystem. You can’t steal fruit off the vine and expect it to grow back if you don’t feed the plant.
There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle now that the internet exists. I feel the same way about piracy: once it happens, it’s done — it’s out there. People aren’t going to pay for something they can easily get for free. How do we counter that and not destroy everything we love about the Internet?
I recently discovered there’s something worse than torrents. One night at my house, a friend plugged an Amazon Fire TV Stick into my television and said her sister gave her this new thing called “Kodi.” It’s basically a media player that can stream any torrent file you want. My response was, “Are you fucking kidding me? Magic Mike is only $3.99 on iTunes. I will buy it right now — just get this fucking thing out of my house!” I asked my friend if her sister was a computer nerd, and she said no — she’s just a normal girl from Iowa. Sitting there, I realized if the average person is doing this, we’re totally fucked! Piracy has become so easy, and so pervasive, an entire generation has grown up without understanding the transactional nature of buying a movie ticket or a Blu-ray, or even a super cheap video on-demand rental. People think it’s a victimless crime, but it’s not.