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Featured Filmmaker: Bobby Neutz, "Thr3e"
Featured Filmmaker: Bobby Neutz, "Thr3e"

Featured Filmmaker: Bobby Neutz, "Thr3e"

Bobby(Pictured at far right with director Robby Henson, partner Joe Goodman, and author Ted Dekker) grew up in Florida and Georgia, but wanted to attend the University of Louisville, where his father (who has since passed away) grew up.

In 1978 he moved to Louisville, where he met his wife Kelly. Eventually his mother, brothers and sisters moved there as well, so it’s home for the whole family. Bobby and his wife Kelly have 4 children. Kasie, the oldest at 21, is a junior in film school. Robby has just joined the Marines (he was shipped off the day we talked) – he’ll be 19 in June. Daughters Karli (14) and Kassidy (13) are keeping their mom and dad company at home.

As a family, they love the beach, so every day they ask when they’re going to Florida. Bobby and Kelly have taken their kids on all the productions except for the filming for Poland. When the productions aren’t going on in the summer, they bring along tutors to help get the schoolwork done. When the family has a dinner out, P.F. Chang’s and The Spaghetti Factory always get a thumbs-up.

Like Us on Facebook Do you anticipate your daughter joining the family business?

Bobby: We hope so. She’s a screenwriter. We’re always looking for good writers, and as a parent, you’re excited about the possibility of your kid coming to work with you. You hope they possess talent that can be used in your business. It’s a good possibility that she’ll be working with us. She likes the bigger budget pictures though, so we’ll see where she starts off and where she ends up. Louisville seems to be a popular place for filmmakers to live these days. Is it developing into an alternative to the West Coast for movie-making?

Bobby: Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to produce any of the movies yet in-state. We have met with the film commission and are hoping they will provide more tax incentives for investors and producers to make their movies here.

Right now there’s not a whole lot the state offers that will attract production companies. But they are considering it, and hopefully something will develop soon. It was run through the last legislative session, and hopefully we’ll see some real money poured into the film commissioner’s office in the next few years. What are some of the states that are moving aggressively to lure filmmakers their way?

Bobby: We’ve not taken advantage of them yet, but New Mexico and Louisiana are growing as possibilities. North Carolina has been around for a while, of course. Hawaii has a very generous tax credit for investors. The offset is that it’s an expensive place for filming. We are seriously considering making our next film there because we have some Hawaiian investors who are willing to put up the part of the budget that we need to finish making it. What is the film you’re working on?

Bobby: "Uncharted". It’s based on the best-selling novel by Angela Hunt. Filming in Hawaii must be tough.

Bobby: Everybody here is thrilled about that one. Visalia was nice. We filmed The Visitation with the Downes brothers there, and that was OK, but certainly not Hawaii. Then our last two films Thr3e and House were in Poland. It was a lot more remote area and that was tough, but we’ve got those productions under our belt.

We got great production value out of Poland, so we’re glad for that experience. But it will be nice to be in Hawaii. I’ve got 6 guys in my Bible study who never volunteered to go to Poland, but they’re all ready to go to Hawaii. Can you talk about filming in Poland?

Bobby: There are some great crews out there; a lot of creative directors, cinematographers, art directors and production designers that work on these European films. Poland has a lot of really creative people, and the city we filmed in, Lodz, has a film school. So we were able to take advantage of some really creative talent. And the production crew was about a third of the cost of filming here in the States, so we’ve gotten a lot of production value out of that country. Have you received any feedback about the look of the film?

Bobby: We did screenings and surveys with about 400 people in different parts of the country (before releasing in theaters), and one of the questions we asked was “Where do you think this movie was shot?” A very high percentage (over 50%) thought it was filmed in the Northeastern part of the States – many people thought it had the look of Boston.

I don’t know if we had anyone from those surveys who thought it was filmed outside the country. We had some helicopter shots of Warsaw to give it that big city feel, and I think that’s why a lot of people thought it looked like Boston. It had an older city look to it. Is Poland now a location you’d go back to?

Bobby: Yes, we would. In fact, another of our projects under development is another novel called “Nightbringer.” It’s by James Byron Huggins, another best-selling author. It all takes place in a castle, and we found one in Poland that would work great for it.

Fox has actually accepted that as one of our final movies to deliver to them. We’ve done a total of 4 movies with them, and this would bring it to 5. We’re hoping to film this in the winter of this year. Our first movie with Fox, "Thr3e", and now House (slated for theatrical release in October 2007). “Nightbringer” will be the final picture of that deal. You had films released by Fox Home Entertainment before the FoxFaith brand was created. What is it about your films that generated the kind of interest that brings a 3-picture deal along with it?

Bobby: Fox was very interested in reaching that Christian marketplace before they created the FoxFaith brand. They knew we had already developed and produced the Left Behind movie, which was a big hit. (More than 4 million videos of that have been sold)

When we were working on Hangman’s Curse, based on a Frank Peretti novel, they learned that he was one of the biggest fiction authors in the Christian marketplace. So they picked that one up for distribution.

Then they found it went further than just the Christian marketplace, which is our interest. We want Christians to support the movies, but we want them to reach beyond that. They were able to get it into Wal-Mart and Target, then it sold to ABC Family, and then aired it during the Halloween season of 2004.

After that Showtime picked up the rights to it, and it sold well internationally. So it ended up having a nice broad appeal. From Fox’s perspective they wanted to make sure they picked up titles that would have a strong draw for the Christian marketplace. From their perspective, that was an untapped market at the time. The FoxFaith brand came out after we started doing business with them.

In between Hangman’s Curse and The Visitation, they  picked up the video rights to The Passion of the Christ, and that’s when the doors swung wide open. They realized the power of churches, radio stations and television stations to help reach that market. You’ve been credited with creating the concept of church screenings as a marketing strategy for the Left Behind movie.

Bobby: We co-produced that with Cloud 10 Pictures and picked it up when the book had only sold 100,000 copies. We had no idea it was going to become the anomaly it did. By the time we went into production, I think the sales had reached 25 million books. It ended up going on to sell 50 – 60 million copies, but we still couldn’t get a studio interested in it.

It was like The Passion of the Christ. Mel Gibson went knocking on the doors of all the studios and they rejected it, so he put up his own money and released it himself. That’s when he showed Hollywood that there’s a lot out there in the Christian marketplace. But it took him putting up his own money because Hollywood wasn’t believing it.

That’s what happened with Left Behind. We couldn’t get a studio behind it, so Cloud 10 Pictures put up some money for it and we were able to market it well. Even after the video release it went on to do a $4 million box office. That opened the doors for us with Fox to say “hey, they’re onto something here.” Ralph Winter (executive studio producer of the X-Men) is listed as a partner in Namesake Entertainment. Most people would consider him a Hollywood power-hitter. How did your partnership develop?

Bobby: We met Ralph when we were looking for a producer to work with us on Left Behind. He said he’d produce it with us, and that was the beginning of a great relationship. He understood that we wanted to make faith-based films that also appealed to the general marketplace. That lined up with his interest in doing independent films with a spiritual, or Christian theme, that appeal to both Christians and the general market.

He helped us with Left Behind and helped forge a relationship with Fox. He was a great liaison for our company with Fox. So he joined us and recently became a partner. Your films have been predominantly in the thriller/horror genre. Do you deliberately choose that type of story because you like that yourselves, or is it a business decision?

Bobby: It seems to be a very popular genre of films right now. A lot of the ones in the secular marketplace right now are horror, and it sells well internationally. There have been some very good books.

Frank Peretti was kind of the pioneer of that type of fiction writing, so we’ve been able to tap into that kind of writing that already existed. There are great writers like Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker that have written, and are writing novels, that make smooth adaptations into film. It has also performed really well for us internationally. So it is a hot item right now. Robby Henson has directed several of your movies. Is he your director of choice?

Bobby: He had done 2 films with budgets under $3 million that had some notable actors (Billy Bob Thornton, Patricia Arquette, Kris Kristofferson, Chris Cooper and Patricia Clarkson – who was nominated for an Academy Award).

We felt he could do movies that didn’t have to have big budgets attached to them to make them look good. He was also able to attract good talent, so when we brought him on board, it made it easier to cast. We were able to call casting agents, tell them he was on board, and that he’d worked well with these actors on previous movies. We really like Robby and he’s done great work for us. We’re bringing in someone different for “Uncharted” because we want to get a different look and feel. Have you worked with Scott Derrickson? (Director of "The Exorcism of Emily Rose")

Bobby: Scott was one of the co-producers on The Visitation. He helped us with the script and we were going to tap into him to direct that picture, but that’s when he got the call for "The Exorcism of Emily Rose". That was a $20 million budget, so of course he jumped in on that one. We still are in talks with him.

We picked up a book series by Charles Williams (a member of “The Inklings”, a writer’s group that also included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien) and Scott Derrickson has been interested in working on those novels with us. Since the formation of your company and the first film y’all did, how have things changed for you? Do you find it easier to get investors, are properties easier to come by?

Bobby: We certainly have formed a lot of new partnerships and relationships with studios – the one with Fox, and now we’re looking at another studio. We have great relationships with writers and directors and others they are key to getting movies made.

In the beginning you’re trying to build those without having a library or repertoire of work you’ve done that you can show people. There’s been a lot of credibility added with having movies release successfully in theaters, major distribution and getting money back for investors. So from that point, it’s gotten easier.

The difficulty now is we have to keep the ball rolling. We have movies in production, we’re always looking for new investors, or working on another distribution agreement with a studio. The machine has to be kept moving forward. In some ways it’s a lot easier with the relationships, but there’s still a lot of legwork required to keep things going.

We’ll work with Fox on the marketing and distribution plans, and that takes some of the burden off in that regard. From the time the lights go on in the office we’re able to focus 100% on getting movies made. We’re calling investors, developing projects, calling casting agents, and everything else that goes into making a movie.

Our staff has grown by 1; we have a full-time finance guy now who’s our comptroller, so that brings us up to 5 people. Since we do 1 ½ - 2 movies a year, we’re hiring crews of 75-100 people for each on an as-needed basis.

Right now we’re editing “House” so we have a post-production supervisor that we’re paying, as well as some special effects people we’re working with. Do you have crewmembers that you like to use on each picture?

Bobby: If we’re in Poland, we’d use the same crew that we used before unless there was someone that didn’t work out for us – then we’d replace them. We might bring in a different director, cinematographer, or production designer to give a different look to the film. But for the most part, we’ll use the same crews if we’re shooting in the same area.

We’re putting our Hawaii crew together right now, and if we did any future productions there, we’d use the same crew. Just like if we went back to Visalia, we’d let Bobby and the guys bring back the crew they used for The Visitation. What are the 3 critical steps to take when producing a movie?

Bobby: Finding the money, getting distribution and getting the script ready. To make a movie, you have to have money. That’s investors. We won’t make a movie until we have distribution, so that’s next. And we have to have a good story we’re making into a movie.

In the actual production process, once the picture is “greenlit” (has received studio approval) and we’re moving forward, it’s finding a good director, the right cinematographer, and then finding the right place to film it. Are there certain screenwriters you like to use regularly, or are they selected on a project-by-project basis?

Bobby: There are a few screenwriters we have a relationship with. On the movie Thr3e we were able to get Alan McElroy, who did a number of Hollywood movies (Spawn, Wrong Turn) that were big pictures. Spawn did over $100 million at the box office and Wrong Turn did around $20 million. So he’s a notable writer, but also a friend of ours. He’s been very fair with us and not charged us the Hollywood prices, so we’ve been able to take advantage of that.

For “Uncharted” we’re using a lady named Pam Wallace, who got an Academy Award nomination for “Witness.” That started her career and she’s done many movies, including quite a few for Hallmark. Her writing is very character-driven, and this is a character piece.

We keep building relationships with writers and deciding what writer’s going to be in our best interest for each project. Do you watch other producers’ movies?

Bobby: We make it a point to see certain ones. We recently saw Amazing Grace, The Last Sin Eater and The Ultimate Gift. Of course we watch what’s happening with FoxFaith and we also keep tabs on other production companies – like Walden Media – and watch what’s on their slate.

There aren’t a whole lot of companies in Hollywood making Christian films. What we are seeing is an increase in the number of independent companies who are starting to get on studios’ radar, but there haven’t been that many until now. “Christian films” regularly receive strong criticism from reviewers that want to see better productions. What do you think Christian filmmakers need to do to achieve a higher standard?

Bobby: For us personally, we want to be able to tell better stories. Some of our criticisms were that stories weren’t told in relevant ways that connected with critics. So we feel like we should put more into our screenplays.

We also want to put more time into pre-production. When you plan these lower budget films you tend to rush into production, which means that you don’t put much time into pre-production. This means you don’t plan well enough, which could make for a poor quality film.

We want to make sure that we get a better talent pool than what we’ve had in the past. You need that when there are certain scenes you have to be able to pull off, you want the talent that can pull that out when needed.

As far as putting more money into the production itself, there’s a real formula you have to work through to make sure if you’re putting x amount of dollars into production you’re getting x amount back out of it in order to keep making movies. I look at some of these movies that have a lot of money put into them - like Amazing Grace.

We heard it had a $30 million budget. It’s a really well-made film, but they’re going to have a hard time making a profit unless it ends up doing well for them in the international market. They’ve got $30 million into the production, another $20 million into the P&A (Prints & Advertising – the cost of creating film prints and any advertising done for the film), so the total outlay is $50 million.

It only did $20 million at the box office, and they only get about $10 million of that themselves. The theater owners will get the other $10 million. So they’re about $40 million out of pocket and they’ve got to make it up in TV, video and foreign distribution. So they might have a really hard time doing that; more than likely won’t be able to do that. I’d love to see their financial model when all is said and done because there’s a real balance that has to happen so that you can keep making these movies. When you’re small production companies you can’t afford to have any misses with your business model.

The Ultimate Gift had a $9 million budget and was a beautiful-looking film. They put around $3 million into the P&A, so they’re into it for $12 million. They did around $3 million at the box office, which means just $1.5 back to the producers. So they’re going to have to sell a lot of videos, get TV rights sold, and hope for a good showing in international markets to get their money back.

We do try to follow these films and try to look at their budgets to see how the models work in order to be able to stay in business. So from our end, we want to focus on having great stories to tell, better scripts, good talent, and spend the time needed to plan these productions so we end up with a quality movie.

We’re trying to plan things out so that when we go into production we have everything thought out and fewer hiccups. When you have hiccups, they drive up costs and you start compromising what shots you’re going to end up doing for that way. You start compromising your film because you’re on a limited budget. Whereas if you spend more time in the planning stage, you might not run into the same challenges when you’re in production. You’re not spending your time doing things you should have planned better for.

It’s the same thing with some of the talent. Some of it we work with has been really good, some has not been quite as good. So you spend a lot of time trying to get a scene down. Then when you watch the movie you see who are the good actors and those who are aspiring.

We want to be able to get good actors who can deliver great performances, so we’re going to spend more time with that in casting. When your production date is 2-3 weeks away and you have 3-4 characters still to cast, you wind up grabbing bodies who look decent. You might have gotten somebody better if you had spent more time on it. Why has international distribution become a more important part of the business model?

Bobby: We don’t rely just on the Christian marketplace because on our films, you’d have to sell a million videos. I don’t know too many people who can sell that many videos time and time again, so we try to plan around what we think we can safely sell to the Christian marketplace, which is 300,000-500,000 units. But then you can capture the rest of your revenue sources out of international markets and TV. So we want to make our films to appeal to an international marketplace too. What elements appeal to an international audience?

Bobby: We meet with international buyers, both in Europe and at AFM (American Film Market – a convergence of independent filmmakers and distributors, where more than $800 million in deals will be confirmed) and ask them what they are looking for. We’ve found the horror genre has been successful internationally, and it helps to have name recognition with your talent. There has been some recent criticism that Christian filmmakers use talent that is on its way down rather than its way up. They suggested looking to music videos and commercials for up-and-coming actors. How do you balance that with the need for name recognition?

Bobby: That works well with getting good talent that will give you a good performance on set. It’s more of a challenge from a marketing standpoint when you try to get people to come see your movies. It’s kind of a double-edged sword.

I agree in principal with the idea of getting aspiring talent. Look at The Ultimate Gift. They had Abigail Breslin in a supporting role, and her movie prior to that was "Little Miss Sunshine", for which she received an Academy Award nomination. She’s a great little actress but didn’t have a whole lot of credits before that. She just happened to break through when their film came out, which helped tremendously. If she hadn’t gotten the nomination for the Academy Award, her name recognition would have been a lot less. You would still have gotten a great actress, but putting her on the poster wouldn’t have helped the marketing a lot.

Like all things, you have to have a balance. International buyers are looking for names, so if you don’t have someone recognizable, you need to have a popular genre. And someone being on their way down doesn’t matter as much internationally; they like names whether they’re on their way up or their way down. So what is the North American market looking for vs. the international market?

Bobby: The domestic market is more story-driven. We’re paying more attention to it here, so better screenwriting. Good stories initially that can translate to good screenplays are what we’re always looking for. What are a couple of films that have been made in the last couple of years that you wish you could have made?

Bobby: We all really liked The Exorcism of Emily Rose. It had a broad market appeal and it was a good story. It was told a little bit differently than we would have done in some parts. Some parts of it would have been offensive to our Christian marketplace although a lot of people did embrace it.

"Little Miss Sunshine" was a great movie and great story about a family’s turmoil and how they pull together in the end. But it had so much language in it and a character that was somewhat of a pervert. Alan Arkin won an Academy Award for it, but it could have been done more tastefully. It’s a great story – did $40-50 million at the box office. In our opinion it could have done $100 million or more if it had been done a little differently.

I went onto Focus on the Family’s website to see what they said, and they seemed to feel like I did. It could have been a great movie if they had done it differently. There were some great actors and actresses in it; the story resonated with a lot of people. It showed the conflicts within the family, and each character had its own story going that caused you to resonate with their lives. What’s it like to work with your wife?

Bobby: It works out great. We were married for 15 years before we started working together. When I’d come home from my regular job, I didn’t have too much to discuss with her when I came home so business stayed at work and didn’t come home.

With both of us working together in the same business, sometimes that does carry home. I had to get used to that because sometimes at the end of the day you don’t always want to talk business.

My wife is very creative and she works more on the artistic/creative side with my partner Joe. I work more on the business side. The Lord has blessed us by complementing us with different gifts. So we don’t run into disputes too often with what we’re working on, and we can have healthy conversations at home about our whole business. We’ve grown together – we’ve been married 21 years – and this another area of growth we’ve had. Can you describe your journey into filmmaking?

Bobby: I had no interest in it at all until Joe Goodman (my partner) approached me as an investor about a cartoon series he was working on. I had 4 young children at the time and I thought “Gosh, I’d like to see better children’s programming on Saturday mornings for our kids.” It kind of took off from there.

I helped get other investors interested. Then we started looking at other things we could do; books and stories that are out there.

I was pretty naïve and didn’t know too much about the business. It was a blessing that neither one of us really knew too much about it. If I knew then what I know now, I probably would not have gotten into it – it’s been an uphill battle.

In our naïveté, we relied on God and he brought us through. I know he tapped me on the shoulder and said “I want you to get involved on the business side of this and I’m going to use that to build Namesake.” I did insurance and employee benefits before that, and worked with a lot of businesses and owners. I worked with some high net work individuals so I had some familiarity in working with those kind of people. What are some of your favorite movies?

Bobby: I love the The Lord of the Rings movies – great production values, stories, and full of spiritual themes. I’m kind of an older guy – I love the Rocky movies. I love the underdog coming out on top and winning in the end. There’s something about Sylvester Stallone; his personal life and the way he managed to make those films. Bobby, thanks for your time, and be sure to let us know if you need any crew in Hawaii!


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