Bull and Ghost Light were two of the movies represented by Dan Harlow (center) and Bunker 15 Films (Photos: Bull, Samuel Goldwyn Films & Bert Marcus Films; Ghost Light, H9 Films & Giant Pictures)
(Q&A Corner is a feature on Film Frenzy that focuses on those both in front of and behind the camera: actors, directors, writers, and other cinematic movers ‘n’ shakers of all stripes. In this installment, we interview Dan Harlow, the founder of the Charlotte, NC-based Bunker 15 Films.)
Film Frenzy: First, tell us a bit about your background. How did you end up in Charlotte?
Dan Harlow: I was actually born in Detroit, where most of my family still lives. We moved to San Diego when I was 8 and I’ve been a Cali guy ever since. Raised in San Diego, I went to college as a Computer Science major at UCLA. Los Angeles is actually where I got interested in the film industry. I just couldn’t believe how the entertainment industry — particularly film and television — seemed to be the economic power that, for the most part, fueled this giant metropolis of L.A. I mean, everyone I met — accountants, lawyers, personal assistants, tailors, almost everyone — was directly connected to the film industry. They weren’t just accountants; they were accountants for Johnny Depp and Ellen DeGeneres. They weren’t just car-washers; they were car-washers to the stars. It was such a massive economic engine that it fascinated me.
At UCLA, I got swept up in Information Technology. To fast-forward, I started an IT company right out of college in Los Angeles. I quickly found the growth in the San Francisco area to be just too big to ignore, so my company opened a second office in San Francisco and closed our first office in Santa Monica.
Twenty years later, I had 300 employees and six offices, and we were major vendors at the biggest banks in the country. This meant that we needed to open an office in Charlotte, headquarters to Wells Fargo and Bank of America. I thought I could relocate here for just a year, but then I met my wife, sold my company, and ended up staying.
What inspired you to form Bunker 15 Films?
When I sold my IT company, I said to myself, “What would I do if I could do anything and money wasn’t an issue?” I decided I wanted to make a movie. So I did a little research and thought I had enough funds to make three micro-budgeted films. Even if two of them were failures, hopefully one of them would be a success, since the law of averages was on my side.
The problem was, as I networked and started putting together a team of filmmakers, no one seemed to have the foggiest idea how to monetize the film once it’s done. And the more I looked into it, the less possible it seemed to break even on any of these three films. Well, I wanted to make a film but I didn’t want to just throw money away, so I went back to my old alma mater, UCLA, and signed up for their post-grad courses in the film business.
After working toward my Independent Producer Certificate at UCLA Extension Film Studies, I realized that it is, in fact, very difficult to break even on a small film. And one of the biggest challenges that all filmmakers complained about was the inability to get press for the film. In fact, the process they explained to me to get press was basically the same process they could have explained 60 years ago: Make sure your movie plays in all the big theaters in all the big cities, and then all the big publications like the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times will cover you. I thought that sounded like it was a strategy straight from the 1950s and that there must be a better way.
That’s when it hit me. I have an IT degree and an IT background with an interest in film. I had stumbled upon a major challenge facing filmmakers today that actually lent itself well to a technology-based solution. I found that I could build a data warehouse of film writers all over the world — everything they ever wrote about. And if I mapped this data to a certain small film, I could quickly locate writers who not only would write about the film, even if it was a small VOD release on iTunes, but would actually be somewhat predisposed to like the genre or the topics in the film.
What, then, would you say is the primary purpose of Bunker 15 Films?
The purpose of Bunker 15 Films is to allow even the smallest film to find press people who will write about it. This is the best first step to any movie finding its best audience. Everyone is using influencers, people who are (usually) experts and have an audience already built. Get writers to write about your film and you have an entry into the market and to your audience. Filmmakers need access to film writers, and we create that access.
Can you give us examples of movies that benefited from being handled by Bunker 15 Films?
There have been a bunch. We worked with Ghost Light, starring Peter Bart and Cary Elwes. It’s a spooky film about a theater company putting on a cursed Shakespearean play. It did well with our critics and later sold to Showtime. I can’t take credit for the sale to Showtime, but I’m sure the buyers took into account the critical response. That’s really the smart play. Get this press coverage before you pitch to the big buyers. Many of these buyers do not watch your film but they will read our reviews.
The Light of the Moon was a SXSW winner we helped go to VOD when Amazon Prime was doing its Film Festival Stars program. While it got around 15 reviews during its theatrical run, no one was going to promote it for its streaming debut. But we were able to get it another 18 or so reviews for a boost in profile when it went out on the Amazon platform. We were able to bring it to the attention of the LA Times, and they actually made it their “VOD Pick of the Week.” That we were able to pull that off blew the filmmakers away — they called me and asked, “Did you do that?”
We also worked with a small indie called Anya. It’s done quite well with the critics we’ve shown it to. The filmmaker recently called to let me know the reviews definitely helped get the attention of agents — so she’s fielding offers from agents, at least partially, because of positive critical buzz.
Sometimes, the critics that Bunker acquires to review a movie end up giving it negative reviews. Does Bunker prepare the studio or the filmmakers for that possibility? Are there instances where they got so mad at an overall negative response that they made threats or demanded refunds or burned down houses?
Ha; oh, no. Everyone is very well aware that there is this thing called a “Bad Review” that happens every so often to movies. They’re well aware that we’re typically garnering editorial content, not advertising content. In other words, once the critic has the screener, that’s it. Our control over the situation is done at that point. The critic can choose to write about the film or not. The critic can choose whether to even watch the film or not. And, of course, what they write — positive or negative — isn’t up to us. The only instance when a critic will typically defer to us is timing — i.e. when they can or cannot publish the review. Critics are already accustomed to having embargo dates for most movies, so this isn’t a problem.
All that said, we are in that uncomfortable position where we are given way more of the credit than we deserve when a film gets a lot of positive press. We worked on Bull when it played at Cannes; it received overwhelming praise, and Filmmaker Magazine even did a piece on the director thanks to us. Bull then subsequently scored a domestic deal with Samuel Goldwyn and an international distribution deal with Sony. Now how much of that is really thanks to us? I would say not much. I didn’t write or direct the movie; I didn’t even write any of those reviews.
Likewise, the other side of the coin is there, too. When a film doesn’t do great, we get this weird disproportionate amount of blame — like we were the ones who screwed up. We handled a Western a while back with a country music star playing the sheriff. Not only was it not a great film, it had all this objectionable violence in it, particularly against women. We received a ton of negative feedback from critics, and many of them told us they’d rather not write anything than have to review it. I would say we got six positive reviews, six negative reviews, and at least 10 critics who watched the film, disliked it, and decided to pass on publishing a review. So if anything, the 50% Rotten Tomatometer score on Rotten Tomatoes was far higher than the movie should have gotten [27% Rotten], yet the studio was mad that we only got the film a 50% Rotten. As if I’m the one who made the film!
Has there ever been a movie that Bunker refused to handle for whatever reason?
There would be a lot of films that we wouldn’t represent, sure. Something that was too close to porn or too bloody. But, to be honest, we don’t get any of that. Mostly, we get festival films. I think some success on the festival circuit is what gives filmmakers the confidence to come to us in the first place and ask for feedback from critics. And it’s a virtuous cycle because critics love festival films. They see some validation from a festival — even a small one — and that makes them curious about the film. It’s also how these critics and writers scout new talent. It’s exciting to see a talented new writer or director come through with a small indie film with limited resources. That’s what a lot of these journalists really keep going for — to be one of the first people to spot a rising star.
You’ve done some surveys regarding film journalism — what were their focus?
Before I even started Bunker 15 films, I gathered up information on loads of film writers and just went out to them and asked them if they would write about a VOD film, if they had the chance. If a large percentage of them said, “No way,” then I doubt I would have even tried to start this company. The good news was the large appetite from the critics that they wanted to review more small films. They all grew weary of reviewing Spider-Man movies and, frankly, reviewing the same movies that had already been reviewed 200 times. But here was the kicker: It was the publication that was the issue. The publications wouldn’t pay for those reviews or didn’t want to publish those reviews. So the critics wanted obscure films while their publications didn’t. That’s the spot we’re in now.
We also polled 2,000 or so filmgoers and asked them what was their deal with film reviews. The good news was that the power of the film influencer continues to grow. People want reviews. They want to see the film scores on Rotten Tomatoes. They want to scan reviews. The downside — at least for critics — was that most readers wanted the reviews to be shorter.
I understand you have a new book that’s now available. What’s it about?
The title is Making Movies Without Losing Money, which sounds either like a scammy informercial or a magic trick. But it’s really about reducing the inherent financial risk in low-budget filmmaking. I had interviewed some 50 film professionals about how to monetize a small-budget film. What I ended up with was 25,000 words, which is basically a small book. When I showed it around, the London-based Taylor & Francis Group, a well-established publisher of filmmaking books, said it looked fantastic and wanted a finalized version for publishing for 2020. Once they gave me the contract, I went back through it; I ended up with maybe another 50 interviews and put together a half-dozen detailed case studies. It’s now out and available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and a few other sites.
As a film fan, what are some of your favorite movies?
Groundhog Day is probably my Greatest of All Time film. I saw it in college; I assumed it would be another goofy Bill Murray movie, but my friends and I had our jaws on the floor after we left the theater. Like, man, that movie was about my life. And as a huge Bill Murray fan, Lost in Translation is another one of my top films. To bridge that gap between an aging movie star and a 20-something newlywed … to make a film that showed the universal search for yourself that is shared by these two diverse characters. That’s still amazing. Murray deserved the Oscar that year. To play a guy who could be the life of the party any time he wanted but was now just too tired and beaten down to keep doing it required not just his amazing talent but his accumulated lifetime of experiences. No one else could have pulled off that role.
One of the first DVDs I ever bought — not even to watch but just because I wanted to own the film — was Friday Night Lights. That movie still blows me away when I watch it. And Apocalypse Now is one of my most referenced movies. At dinner sometimes, I will say out of the blue, “Everyone gets everything he wants.” Sometimes I’ll add the rest of the line: “I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one.”