– By Sam Hendrian –
To make movies has been one of the most popular American dreams over the last century. In the digital age, this dream is easier to achieve than ever before, although perhaps not on a grand scale. To “make it big” in Hollywood is still a “many are called, few are chosen” sort of deal, with the influx of countless internet films making it quite hard to stand out. Vernon Mortensen, a JPCatholic MBA professor who has worked both inside and outside the walls of Hollywood, shared his thoughts and recollections on the world of independent filmmaking and how young filmmakers can stand out.
Professor Mortensen has had a nearly 20-year history with the independent film world. He recalled, “When I was still in film school, I met a guy named Kirk Harris, who owned a company called Rogue Arts… he was a judge at a film festival where I had entered a film, and he came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Hey, I’d like to get to know you, maybe work together.’ So I went down to the company, and they liked one of my screenplays, and I got brought in to be a development writer… I’ve [now] been with that company since 1999.” Rogue Arts has produced several movies and TV shows, and it has distributed over 100 movies around the world.
In the digital age, independent filmmaking has paradoxically both flourished and suffered. Professor Mortensen lamented, “[In the] late ‘90s/early 2000s, the indie world was amazing. It was really a viable industry and future, and you could make a living at it. It’s tough now. Movies aren’t worth what they used to be because everybody can make a movie. The market is flooded with content, so it pushes the value of independent movies down.” While he has enjoyed his years of independent filmmaking, he warned, “It kind of falls on the independent filmmaker now to figure out how to make it work. If you can’t make million-dollar movies anymore, how do you make a movie for $50,000 or $100,000 and make your money back? That’s the biggest, hardest, toughest thing to do right now.”
As a part of his career working for independent production companies, Professor Mortensen worked for a time on the legendary Paramount Pictures lot, which he candidly described as “an island in the middle of a bad neighborhood.” While Paramount Pictures itself only releases 10-15 movies a year under its name, it leases its lot space to several smaller production companies. Vernon remembered his experience at Paramount less fondly than one might expect, saying, “After a while, I started to feel like I was trapped… I got bored with Paramount quickly.”
When asked if he generally prefers working outside or inside the walls of Hollywood, he did not give a definitive answer, saying, “It’s a tough call… the money’s good inside the walls, but getting things done with your stamp on it is very difficult.” While he may not have been immensely fond of his experience at Paramount, he affirmed, “There are some benefits to being on the lot. If you’re on the lot, it’s easy to close deals.”
Professor Mortensen gave some great advice for students/independent filmmakers who want their work to be noticed by Hollywood someday. He explained, “Hollywood is looking for a couple of things, and this is where I think film schools miss so many things. They’re looking for this true, authentic voice. And here’s the part they usually miss: [a voice] that knows how to package itself.” He then went on to say, “And the final missing ingredient is absolute mastery of story… If you could get students to that level within the walls of the [film] school, they would become indispensable.” When asked if he thinks story is largely undervalued by filmmakers these days, he replied, “Yeah… If you’re a producer, if you’re a director, if you’re a writer, if you’re a DP, if you’re an editor: if you don’t understand how story works at all, all the little intricacies and all that stuff that goes with it, you’re already behind the curve.”
Even if a filmmaker masters story, it can still be hard to stand out in Hollywood. When asked what makes a movie special in the eyes of Hollywood executives, Professor Mortensen replied, “In the studio system, they say, ‘It’s a movie.’ What that means is that it has all of the elements necessary to get a project through the system… It has to be, in a way, high-concept. So if you look at Lady Bird, it feels small and simple, but I look at it, and it’s like, ‘Oh, this concept has legs.’ I mean, it’s got some really interesting stuff going on in it… To me, it rests entirely on its interesting concept.”
While the walls of Hollywood are hard for new filmmakers to scale, it is still quite possible to do so if story and originality are mastered. Steven Spielberg himself affirmed in an interview, “It’s not about camera magic… When I’m looking at student films, or I’m looking at first-time directors’ short films, I’m not looking for how great the camera is… I mean, I can look at any TV commercial and know that there are directors out there who can place a camera and sell a product. But can they tell a story that holds together and is compelling and original?… I’m more interested in the storyteller who doesn’t know anything about the camera than someone who knows everything about the camera but nothing about the story process.” Professor Mortensen continues to share his storytelling wisdom and insight with students and hopes that they will indeed become the bright new filmmakers of tomorrow.
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.
About the Professor
Prof. Vernon Mortensen is a professor of film producing and distribution at John Paul the Great Catholic University. He is a filmmaker, businessman and a veteran of the international film festival scene. His many movies and television shows have been enjoyed by audiences around the world. As a filmmaker, his wide-ranging career has included writing, directing & producing the western/thriller ‘The Sorrow’ starring Kirk Harris, John Savage and Michael Madsen, as well as serving as an executive producer on ‘The Kid: Chamaco,’ starring Martin Sheen and Michael Madsen. He currently works for the motion picture production/distribution company Rogue Arts as a film and television producer and a distribution executive.
Mortensen has an MBA from Alliant International University; a Master of Professional Writing (screenwriting) from USC, where he studied under script guru Syd Field and was an Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Fellow. He earned a BFA in Film from the world-renowned Art Center College of Design and a received a BS from Excelsior College.