Documentary Review: Horror filmmaker braves the vicissitudes of the “Clapboard Jungle” of making movies today

It’s a miracle when anybody gets their first feature film made, a miracle that anybody not born into the business or with a silver spoon film school degree on their resume even gets a shot.

If you knew the hell first-time filmmakers endure– a hell sometimes repeated several times before they A) go broke and give up or B) make that first, second or third film and nothing happens and give up or C) break through– you’d never look at any film without a measure of compassion and pity again.

Of course, that doesn’t count for critics. We can’t take the struggle into account. We can’t grade on the curve just because of what it took to get you here.

“Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business” is a documentary about a filmmaker’s five year journey to get a feature film made. It’s of its moment, because there have been books and object lesson articles about how Steven Soderbergh got “sex, lies and videotape” into Sundance, how George A. Romero used his Pittsburgh TV connections to make “Night of the Living Dead,” how Robert Rodriguez got his mom to cater his no-budget breakthrough “El Mariachi,” Richard Linklater’s “Slacker” story and how “Slacker” inspired Kevin Smith to make a convenience store comedy, “Clerks.”

A bunch of guys working in video editing and other jobs around the periphery of production cobble together a film festival horror movie and “The Blair Witch Project” becomes a phenomenon.

The model for how every single one of those iconic “How I got myself a career in the movies” stories was shattered long before a pandemic shuttered most of the world’s cinemas. And “Clapboard” will be out of date in its observations of “The way the business works now” before you know it.

We don’t really know Justin McConnell’s financial background or bonafides, just what he tells us in his film. He grew up in Haliburton, Ontario, started tinkering with movies early on, moved to Toronto — where they hold one of North America’s premiere film festivals — and started the struggle to get money, skills, contacts and everything else it takes to get his ideas for movies made.

He finished one, here and there. No, you’ve never seen them. He takes the Amazon reviews of these efforts hard. But he’s still at it. And with all this access to cameras and all the filmmakers who show up for the Toronto Film Festival — panel discussions and interview opportunities — he started collecting tips, hints, career advice on how to get one of the projects on his “slate” (among them a novel adaptation) financed and in production.

Legions of legends trot across the screen in “Clapboard Jungle,” from Guillermo del Toro to Romero and Garris and Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman, along with indie filmmakers engaged in the same struggle like Jenn Wexler and Noburu Iguchi. All are full of often contradictory advice about how to go about it, how to navigate “the wild west of streaming,” direct online sales via Amazon or Youtube, boutique distributors such as Dark Star, Shudder and the Canadian “We’ll release it if no one else will” co-op that released “Clapboard,” IndieCan.

McConnell, who films himself and flatly narrates throughout, is the latest to remind us that “the business” is still a place where “the reality doesn’t match up to the dream.”

At the outset, he wants to make a $275,000 project that he’ll get to direct and faces the difficulty getting that “first dollar,” the “first money in.” He’s told “get the letter of intent” (LIO) from your stars first, then raise money off that. Then “get the (first in) money first,” then start luring talent. Which direction do you take?

Writers, producers, journalists, publicists and actors (Michael Biehn, Dick Miller) whom he grabs a little time with (or films from the audience at panel discussions) gripe about the “content pipeline” that is every distributor/streamer’s bottom line concern these days. They all need something fresh for people to watch every time they log onto Topic, Netflix, Film Movement, Amazon Prime or Hulu. Filmmakers don’t like the “pipeline” connotation because of its connection to “oil, or sewage,” taking the art and connection with the audience out of their work. But that’s the Brave New World.

Filmmakers watching this will get lots of tidbits of usable advice about making a “proof of concept” short film, prepping a slick illustrated book that sells your script in storyboard/comic book fashion and the like.

I don’t think he mentions this, but an entertainment lawyer is more important to have than an agent.

But everybody looking at this mountain she or he has to roll that boulder up is facing the damning odds that “Taxi Driver” screenwriter and “Cat People” director Paul Schrader warns about, the “tsunami of content” being generated because generations have been indulged in the delusion that this is a viable career option for them, with their pluck and their families propping them up.

There’s all this content out there, most of it is no-budget horror, most of the people making it have the skill level of guys like McConnell. Most of what they create is crap. And even if the new Welles is in their ranks, nobody will find their handiwork.

Most critics can’t be bothered with IndieCan’s product, can’t dive deep into Shudder or Dark Star, Anchor Bay (McConnell is dealing with them in “Clapboard.” Are they still around?) or even the movies that turn up on the lower levels of Netflix, on Tubi, Pluto TV’s specialty channels or elsewhere.

Making money out of your efforts is nigh on impossible in this environment. The gatekeeping that studios and networks used to provide almost promised a rewarding career, if the few — the exceptionally talented, the connected, the related — who got through that gate had the drive to use that access to make movies or TV that people wanted to see. But that’s gone.

Filmmakers could watch “Clapboard Jungle” and see McConnell’s struggles and learn from them. Will they take the lesson, that he gets a film made and pretty much nobody sees it, to heart?

Probably not.

As for anybody else watching this, you’ll miss the drama and melodramatics of “Project Greenlight,” and the (limited) entertainment value. And you might just recognize how representative and sadly unexceptional this story is. There are thousands and thousands of McConnells. Luck, talent, skill, pluck or originality, they all lack something that kept them from realizing their dream.

Whatever drama and arc there is to his story is mostly suggested (depression, ballooning in weight for a time), is stuff that happened after he got his first feature made years BEFORE he started making this movie. The clips and boilerplate, unemotional on-camera narration of “Clapboard Jungle” seems less interesting than what he’d already been through.

Like most filmmakers, he’s not a natural on-camera talent. Kind of grating after a while. And the endless blur of on-camera snippets of filmmakers making single sentence points is a drag, cinematically.

As Lloyd Kaufman lectures him, nobody gave him a break, nobody figured he was entitled to distribution, and Lloyd didn’t whine…much. Why should anybody else taking the same longest of long shots be any different?

MPA Rating: unrated

Cast: Justin McConnell, George A. Romero, Jenn Wexler, Guillermo del Toro, Lloyd Kaufman, Daisy Hamilton, Mick Garris, many many others

Credits: Written and directed by Justin McConnell. An IndieCan release.

Running time: 1:38

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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