The Mexican rooftop was a series of white peaks and red valleys, like desert waves crashing around silver ventilation ducts. Jack Riordan, played by Aaron Costa Ganis, chased Ricardo Torres, a professional parkour runner playing a gold smuggler, up and down the slopes. Ganis, sunburned and sweating, was losing ground on Torres, but Torres was about to run out of real estate. As they reached the roof’s edge, Ganis had Torres trapped, but, without breaking stride, Torres leapt off the roof and disappeared. A few seconds later the camera, attached to a drone, caught up to him as he rolled off the roof of a conveniently parked pickup truck below. Inside, an extra, seated on an unseen overturned bucket, shook his fist as Torres landed on the other side and was gone.
The scene cut and Gaelan Connell, the film’s director, jumped up in excitement. He was shooting Blood, Sand and Gold, an Indiana Jones-esque action/adventure flick in which an archeologist, recently out of prison, works together with the heir to an international salvage company to track down a stolen chest of gold.
His head covered with a bandana and his nose smeared with sunblock, Connell rushed over to watch the scene replay from over the shoulders of the drone operators, two brothers local to Guadalajara. It was the second take, and this time it was perfect. It had to be. Everyone was hot and exhausted from working 16-hour days, but more importantly, Connell was just two weeks into a planned eight-week shooting schedule, which spanned five countries, and he had already almost drained the budget.
Connell wanted to prove that he could make an action movie for the big screen, with car chases, explosions and stunning visuals, but without the help of a Hollywood-level budget.
“We had spent so much upfront — flights, hotels, camera rentals, equipment — it was at that moment where we had to decide, should we move through with everything or cut our losses and head home?” said Connell. If he emptied his bank account, which totaled $205,000, on shooting the film, he’d have nothing left over for postproduction.
Connell’s dream was on the verge of ending before it really began: he wanted to prove not only that he could make an action movie for the big screen, with car chases, explosions and stunning visuals, but that he could do it without the help of a Hollywood-level budget. All told, he was going to do it with a total of $274,000, once one outside investor signed on. If he could get people on the edge of their seat for a quarter million dollars, imagine what he could do for a few million — or so he’d pitch future projects.
Even when he first began directing films at the age of 11, Connell’s goals were outsized. SAG actors that responded to ads on Craigslist about a $150-a-day job arrived to find a young kid with a camera, his mother standing off to one side, nervously compliant. “At age 15 I wanted to shoot a chase through the woods with a helicopter. People said, ‘You can’t do that,’” said Connell. “Well, you can rent a helicopter for 150 bucks. So I got a pilot out in Maryland, filmed for 30 minutes, and that was that.” He didn’t ask to be sent to summer camps; he asked for Sony VX-200s and dolly carts.
He carried this desire to New York University. “When I went to film school, there was like a big difference between film as an art form versus film as entertainment,” said Connell. “I was ridiculed if I wanted to do something that felt too mainstream. People would be, ‘Oh, man, you know, you’re growing up… He’s selling out.’ It’s not selling out if I love it… If you love what you’re doing and a lot of people like it, you’re doing something right.”
Then, in the summer of 2014, at the age of 24, he bet his entire life savings, earned from a handful of acting gigs, on the type of film he loves, those “classic, epic films that bring the audience’s emotions through little bit of everything.”
Roughly, the American filmmaking ecosystem can be simplified to three tiers of financial backing. At the top are films made by one of the six major studios — Warner Bros., Walt Disney, Universal, Columbia, 20th Century Fox and Paramount. These films focus on success domestically and, increasingly, abroad. From 2010 to 2014, box office sales in the US and Canada shrank 2 percent, while internationally they rose 24 percent, according to a report released earlier this year by the MPAA. International markets now represent close to 72 percent of ticket sales worldwide.
For this reason, major studios eschew culture-specific aspects like comedy or dialogue for investments in expensive computer-aided visuals and fast-paced action sequences, which translate more readily abroad. The biggest blockbuster each year of the last few decades has been either an action, fantasy or animated film.
One step down in budgeting are films from well-known auteurs who stray away from the big six in order to maintain control of their processes. Films from directors like Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino are met with critical and financial success, but hit a money-making ceiling at less than half of successful big-studio films. Quentin Tarantino’s largest box office gross came in 2012 from Django Unchained at $425 million, a huge amount of money until you consider that it was only the 15th-highest-grossing film of that year. At the top, The Avengers, a star-heavy, CGI-focused action film associated with Walt Disney Studios, in which entire blocks of Manhattan were destroyed, grossed $1.5 billion, with more than half coming from overseas.