By Justin Sanders
If there was a sign early on that Matt Miller would go on to start his own production company, Vanishing Angle, it probably occurred in high school – where he had the chutzpa to ditch class and head into the city to audit college filmmaking courses at New York University.
Or maybe it happened later, when Miller earned the chance to join the Directors Guild of America… and passed on the opportunity! He chose instead to work lower-level positions on studio productions for less money – but with more chances to boost his knowledge.
Or actually, it is evident in hindsight that Miller’s eventual role as a filmmaking entrepreneur was already peeking through by the age of 13, when he and his father – wait for it – built their own digital editing software, before such products were even available to consumers.
Or heck, maybe Matt was just born with the unique blend of creativity, business savvy, leadership ability, and foresight that it takes to run a production company. A simple conversation reveals that he possesses all four qualities in spades. A simple glance at his personal history reveals that he probably always did have what it takes to be the guiding force behind a slate of content that includes everything from the groundbreaking 35mm feature film Too Late starring John Hawkes, to award-winning VR content, to this year’s SXSW Film Festival Grand Jury Award winner, Thunder Road.
Miller spoke with CreativeFuture from the Vanishing Angle office two weeks after his team had received the SXSW honor for Thunder Road– the top prize at one of the indie circuit’s most revered annual events – and then chatted with us again after the film had screened at the Cannes Film Festival.
The following interview compiles both talks, ranging in topics from the craft of filmmaking to film distribution strategies, to Miller’s dealings with piracy and how his company aims to fight it.
Justin Sanders: Congratulations on Thunder Road winning the Grand Jury Award at SXSW! Did you have any idea that was coming?
Matt Miller: Over the course of the festival, we started getting buzz that we had been a favorite of the programmers, but there was nothing that made us feel sure we were going to win an award or anything.
Then, during the awards ceremony, a short that we produced called Krista ended up winning two awards as well – the first-annual Vimeo Staff Pick Award and Special Jury Recognition for Acting for star Shirley Chen. So, we were already jazzed about those honors before the Jury Award for narrative feature, which is the last award of the night, was even announced.
When they announced it, there was just a ton of pride and shock. Everyone was crying.
JS: I can imagine. SXSW is one of the most revered festivals for indie filmmakers. How did you all celebrate?
MM: (Laughs) We go to the after-party and we’re all exhausted, but as we’re walking there, [Thunder Road director] Jim Cummings turns to [Krista co-director] Danny Madden and says, “Hey, since Vimeo is going to put your short online tomorrow as part of the award, it would really be good to have the Kickstarter for the feature version of Krista that you’ve been writing already up.”
So, then we go back to the Airbnb at like 3:00 AM and we all stay up through the night making a Kickstarter page and video for the feature film version of Krista. At 9:00 AM the Krista short was live on Vimeo and we had the Kickstarter page to go along with it.
That’s just how this team works.
It seems like quite a team. Have you all worked together for a long time?
We’ve been working together now for four years or so. Vanishing Angle has produced 10 projects with Jim, including the feature version of Thunder Road and the short it’s based on – which won the Short Film Jury Prize at Sundance in 2016.
It’s almost like those nine previous short films were training for the Thunder Road feature, both for Jim as a writer and storyteller, but also for our crew to work together.
What has happened to the film since SXSW ended in the spring?
We got a grant from Sundance to self-distribute it and we came out of Cannes and SXSW with some sales, so we’re pretty much in the black already. We pretty much kept all ownership of the film, so at this point any dollars that come in are basically for us.
There’s also a thing now called Art House Theater Day where all the arthouse theaters in the country pick a film to support, and we were picked as one of those films. So, on September 23, the movie will play in hundreds of theaters across the country. Then a month later, in October, we’ll do our official release and it’ll be a mix of some theaters through Drafthouse Films and then a digital push on iTunes and so on.
It’s inspiring to hear about the successful journey of Thunder Road from a business perspective, especially since I know you have produced films in the past that were well-received but then struggled a bit financially – largely due to streaming piracy. Care to talk about some of those times?
Over time, we’ve learned some hard lessons about piracy, and just about the global film market in general.
When we were selling our first two films, The Dramatics and Amira and Sam, and putting them into the market, streaming was still kind of a new thing in the industry. We were sending links to the film to festivals, and to sales agents and distributors, but we weren’t watermarking those links.
By the time we were ready to sell those films to foreign markets, there were international territories who would tell our sales agent, “We’re not going to take your movie because audiences in our marketplace have already had it for three months.”
And you think the films leaked in those territories because of your screener links getting ripped and pirated online?
I know they did.
After the piracy we experienced with our first two films, we didn’t even show screeners of our next film, The Grief of Others. It premiered at SXSW and played a session at Cannes.
After that, like we’ve done with Thunder Road, we would set up showings in screening rooms for select people to come see the movie, who we thought might be potential partners who could add value. We didn’t send out links for it.
We’ve learned that the people who care about the movie make the effort to come see our private screenings. That doesn’t mean they all jump at the chance to distribute it, but they have enough respect to say, “Yeah, if we expect an audience to go see this in the theater, we should do the same thing.”
What sort of “added value” are you looking for in a distributor?
That value can look very different depending on the project. It could just be the financial value of adding additional resources in the marketing, or it could be who the distribution partner is and what audience they have baked into their brand.
But then on the flipside is the idea that you need to have a distributor at all – which is not necessarily the case right now. You need to have a plan and you need to have resources, financial and otherwise, but you don’t need to have a distributor. It’s a very different world than it used to be.
A lot of our strategic decisions boil down to, “Do we have someone that gets our movie and do they have a strategy that will get audiences to pay to see it?” If we don’t go through a distributor, it’s because we haven’t found the right fit in terms of added value.
What’s an example of a film distribution plan that Vanishing Angle designed and executed on its own, without a distributor?
In 2015, we produced a movie called Too Late, starring John Hawkes. That was a really unique film. It consists of five long takes on 35mm film and we used a special camera to do it. Each of the takes is actually the longest take ever done on 35mm.
When we went to release Too Late, we felt strongly that a marketing strategy for the film had to involve playing it in theaters so that the only time you saw an edit in the film was when the reels changed – each reel comprised one of the long takes.
We had a difficult time getting any distributors to see how that was a marketing strategy that would work. Most of them were like, “No, we’ll do the typical day-and-date strategy, where it’s in theaters on the same day it’s on iTunes, etc.”
We felt that for what the film was and who the cast was, we didn’t see how that typical approach was going to yield financial success. So, with our international sales agent, we made a worldwide deal with Netflix and used the domestic portion of that revenue to pay for the release of the film domestically in theaters.
Then we put it out ourselves in the theaters, in 50 cities. All the screenings were on 35mm, and we toured with it like it was a road show – which Quentin Tarantino had done previously with his film, The Hateful Eight.
In the case of Too Late, we felt like we knew the strategy better than anyone else who was pitching us.
Dennis Hauck, director of Too Late, and Matt Miller.
Besides traditional theatrical films, Vanishing Angle heads up commercials, VR, music videos, and other productions. How important are these other types of projects to the business?
We actually built our commercial division up first at Vanishing Angle and then started doing films.
Our first steady client was the LA Phil, doing their social media content. Eventually, other departments at the LA Phil started noticing the videos we were creating, like their education department and then their broadcast team – and we started doing their broadcast spots as well.
It grew organically from there. Our financial model now is that we do commercial stuff so we can keep costs economical on our indie films, so we can take risks and support the projects and directors that we want to.
Talk about your background – where are you from and when did you start getting into film?
I grew up on the East Coast and I got into filmmaking pretty young. I was very lucky because while I was just entering high school, I had a friend I knew from community theater who was starting college at New York University.
With him as a connection there, my parents started letting me leave class in high school and go into the city and audit classes at NYU, and work on student films. There were some incredible artists who were just getting started there, like director and cinematographer Reed Morano. I was 14 years old, pushing this future Emmy® winner around in a wheelchair so she could get some tracking shot. It was an amazing opportunity.
It sounds like your parents were extremely supportive of your budding interest in filmmaking, letting you cut class and all…
When my father saw how into it I was, he decided to help me figure out how to make a movie on my own, but he didn’t know how to provide the editing part. So, he pulled my NYU friend aside to ask for advice.
My friend told him, “Listen, at school we’re still shooting on film, but everyone is talking about this thing called digital editing. If Matt can somehow figure out digital editing, it will give him a leg up because that’s where everybody thinks the industry is going to go.”
So, my dad started taking me around to computer trade shows, looking for digital editing components – they weren’t available on the consumer market yet.
We basically bought an empty computer tower and all these different parts and over the course of six months, we built our own computer for video editing. That really put me ahead of the curve at the time.
That’s amazing. And did you remain in touch with those connections that you had made at NYU while in high school?
Yes, while I was studying film at Temple University, my older friends who had been at NYU were joining the industry, and I could track their progress. I watched as people I knew got caught up in developing a movie for two years that then went away, or who would be expecting to have a job, but the job never materialized.
I realized early on that if I’m going to have any means of control in this industry, it’s going to be by doing things myself, and to do things myself I would need to know how to make movies economically.
And so how did you then go about teaching yourself to make movies economically?
I spent my first years out of college working in production – either as a first or second assistant director (AD) on non-union films – to understand the business of making indie films.
Then I started working on union films, but I chose to not join the Directors Guild of America (DGA) in order to keep working on non-union films at the same time. That meant that on studio productions, I was only eligible for jobs like a production assistant (PA), but I could get those jobs really easily because I had the resume of an AD – there aren’t a lot of people aiming to be in a PA position that have non-union AD credits.
So, then I could walk on to a set like Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino and be like, “Hey, I want to work as the key set PA.” And they would give it to me, but then would wind up treating me like another AD because I had so much experience.
That allowed me to navigate the studio system with a lot of flexibility and learn a lot about how studio movies came together as opposed to indie films. Why did they cost more? How were studio directors running their sets as opposed to directors on indie sets?
My goal when I started Vanishing Angle was to take the best of both worlds I had worked in – studio and indie – and ask, “Is there a way to stay economical but still appeal to broader audiences?”
Clint Eastwood is known for running a pretty tight ship. What did his film sets have to teach you about staying economical?
I learned a lot from working on three films with Eastwood, and from Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, too.
I learned from those filmmakers that when you treat people like professionals, they act like professionals, and when you show people that you value their time, they are more efficient with their time.
What’s happening in the industry now is that budgets are being diced up between all these different pieces of content. Pre-digital, a commercial client might have had a million dollars to spend on one broadcast spot, but now that same amount of money has to pay for the broadcast spot, a Facebook spot, an Instagram spot, etc.
We producers have to figure out how to deal with those fractured budgets while still getting the right talent on board to deliver a high-quality product.
A little bit of money can go far if you’re cutting out frills, but most crews are only going to go for that if they trust that you’re not hanging them out to dry – that you’re going to protect them.
I imagine that having earned the crew’s trust was an instrumental reason for Thunder Road’s success, given that the team on it had worked together on so many other projects leading up to it.
It’s what made the feature doable at all, I think. We made Thunder Road pretty economically, shooting in Austin in 14-and-a-half days with a really small crew. I don’t think we could have shot it that quickly or that cheaply without a crew that had worked together over and over again, and who knew the shorthand and trusted each other.
Running a production studio is a job like none other and not for the faint of heart. What do you think it “takes” to be successful in doing what you do?
So much of it is just being even-keeled when things go crazy. I was the second of four children and I have that middle child thing of being able to negotiate a lot of big personalities around me without becoming a big personality myself. A lot of what I do in running Vanishing Angle is be the steady voice in the room when times are tough or when things go crazy.
Another part of it is resourcefulness. One of the things I thank my father for is teaching me how to do things but also how to learn how to do things, so that when I get into those modes when I’m stuck on something, I can still just figure it out. And I surround myself with people who have a similar mentality.
And then lastly, perseverance. I have been listening to this podcast called How I Built This about how successful entrepreneurs built their companies. Over and over I hear the guests talk about how, when they got to that point where everyone else would have given up, they just… didn’t – even though everybody said that they should. Getting over that hump is the magical thing.
What we do is hard and there are often signs that seem to be telling you that it’s not working. But you have to focus on the signs that tell you it is working and just keep pushing.
All photos courtesy of Matt Miller