If you’ve been kicking around the independent film market much, you probably hear a lot of the same themes again and again from sales agents and distributors about the types of genre films that are high in demand and routinely do solid business.
One genre that stands out more than most is the classic action film.
Action films are debatably the highest in demand type of film worldwide.
The main reason that action does so well globally is because action is visual and transcends language.
Regardless of where you are in the world or what language you speak, you understand and can embrace guns, bullets, fighting, car chases and explosions – all of the classic action film conventions.
But what makes one action film stand out among the rest?
I am going to break down for you what a quintessential action film should and should not include.
Like most mainstream genres, there are sub genres that exist under the banner of action.
Martial arts films, fight films, and action-thriller hybrids (like Taken) are all quality types of action films.
International distributors like any action film that is classical – shootouts, chases, explosions, fighting, etc. As long as the components of classical action are included, the secondary genre or sub-genre is acceptable.
The only sub-genre of action that can really have the potential to fall flat is action-comedy, especially if the comedy outweighs the action.
2. Production Value
Like any film, having quality production value can make or break the film, but particularly in action. If the quality of the action is lackluster, or looks cheap, the film may still sell, but not in an extremely lucrative way.
On the other hand, if an action film has extremely high production value, components such as cast tend to be a bit less essential.
This is not just a rule of thumb for the action itself, but the settings as well. Particularly in films with science fiction elements, it’s easy to lose points on production value when things don’t look super legit.
Having a seasoned stunt coordinator and stunt team involved in your production is also a key way to assure a high quality of action on screen.
3. Volume of Action
Often lower budget action films tend to have much more exposition and story than actual action, which can take its toll on the business a film will do.
A proper classical action film will have significant levels of action from start to finish, with only brief more exposition-driven sequences along the way to drive the story.
If you look at classic action films from the 80s and 90s like First Blood, Predator and Under Siege, you’ll see how the films are designed in a way that even when the action is light, there’s always more right around the corner until the very end.
Having an action film with less action than drama is deflating to buyers. When it comes to action, the more the better.
4. Placement of Action
Much like the volume of the action, the placement needs to be correct as well.
A classical action film will always have solid action in the opening of the film and throughout the last act, but one of the most common criticisms from distributors is there is not enough action in the first and second acts.
Sure, story is important, but there still needs to be fair bits of action woven into those extended periods of exposition.
5. Star Power
Having big names in an action film is not essential, but it definitely makes a big difference and separates the indie fare from the action films that demand business globally.
Most independent budgets cannot afford the likes of producing a Schwarzenegger or Stallone film, but there are plenty of well-known and very indie-friendly actors available on a budget, especially if there is a quality action director at the helm.
Also, having names is great, but having the right names is even better.
Casting an actor who is known for something other than action may not move the needle much for you, much the same you wouldn’t necessarily cast a well-known action star in a comedy.
We are also living in the era of reverse-engineered formula films where producers will hire an expensive actor to headline their film and try and shoot them out in a very short period of time. If that is the case, then the placement of that big name is hugely important.
Even if an actor is shot out in an extremely limited period of time, strategically placing that star throughout the film is important. Technically, you want to have your big name appear in no less than 20 minutes of the total run time of the film, but even that is towing the line.
Making sure your headlining name is spread out throughout the film and in a prominent amount of the total film is essential to the success of capitalizing on that name.
6. CG vs. Practical FX
We are currently making movies in a time where post production has become a very watered-down and consumer driven thing. Anyone with basic knowledge of After FX can do their own special effects.
One thing that will truly set apart an independent action film is whether the special effects are computer generated instead of being done practically.
Some of the more impressive films I have come across in recent years have been the films that have mostly practical effects.
The main CG culprits that cheapen a film are computer generated muzzle flashes and bullet strikes, blood and explosions.
Distributors and audiences alike are savvy and will always be turned off to CG, especially if it’s done poorly and inexpensively. Although CG is often essential, particularly in the cleanup process, using CG sparingly will always give an action film a leg up in the market.
For those of us who grew up in the hey-day of 80s and 90s action films, the genre is super appealing, and with a knowledgeable director doesn’t have to be an extremely expensive genre to work within. But the genre does tend to personify the monotony of very formulaic films.
And most importantly…
The points laid out above are the essential boxes that need to be checked to satisfy both distributors and audiences alike, but like any film, having an original and classical storyline with good characters will set you up from square one with the best chance for success.
If you have managed to find or create that, the rest is simply a matter of execution.
To learn more about what Distributors are looking for when you’re submitting your film, join me on July 24th or 25th in my free training, 6 Ways to Not Screw Up Your Film Distribution Deal. In this training, I’ll share 6 Film Distribution Deal Killers and what to do instead. Click here to join.