After a visit to the American Film Market, producer and director Ryan Davy was more aware of the track to take in making a movie that will get bums on seats – and so was born The Parricidal Effect.

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Has he got the goods – with this question in mind, Ryan Davy, the Joburg producer and director, went off to the American Film Market (AFM), an eight-day networking event for film makers and film buying companies.

At the recent AFM, Davy was able to take stock of whether he had the key elements in place in his latest project, The Parricidal Effect, a supernatural thriller that grew out of a previous visit to the AFM. "I found out what the market was wanting and developed the story around those key elements," he says.

This year, 442 movies were screened at the market, including 82 world premières and 327 market premières, for thousands of film buyers and industry professionals from more than 70 countries. Films that premièred included works by Annette Bening, Helena Bonham Carter, Chow Yun-Fat, Jennifer Connelly, Roman Coppola, Elle Fanning, James Franco, Christina Hendricks, Dustin Hoffman, Kate Hudson, Julianne Moore, Bill Murray, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mark Ruffalo, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alexander Skarsgård, Juno Temple, Kristen Wiig and Elijah Wood, among many others.

"As a second-time feature film-maker it's about gaining credibility, although there is not much financial reward for me on Parricidal as the recoupment favours the investors. It will, however, give me enough credibility to get bigger names and a slightly bigger budget on my next film. It's a process unfortunately of which very few find a short cut. I'm not one of them," he says.

He explains his methods: "I don't want to go to the trouble of finding finance and shooting the film only to find it is not what distributors are looking for. I secured names to the film and then shopped those names around to assess their bankability in the market place, also to determine what kind of revenue the film is likely to recoup so as to know what my budget should be, then I [worked] backwards from there."

It's distribution in reverse, he points out, but is the only way to get realistic sales projections for a finance plan and distribution strategy. "From AFM I managed to acquire a sales agent who will handle foreign sales once the film is made and a domestic distributor who will handle the United States and Canada. I also have five international name actors attached to the project to make the film bankable for pre-sales. Now I go out and find the money based on those guarantees."

Get that great script

The most challenging aspect of film making for Davy is the script process. "I found [it] to be a tedious and daunting one, but absolutely key to how the rest of the process unfolds."

He adds: "When a film-maker arrives in Los Angeles with a script [he must] be prepared to have it scrutinised by every walking, talking individual with an opinion, no matter how big or small a part they may have in the film business.

"Distributors are not the be all and end all of the business. There are many ways to sell a film, but when it comes to the conventional route, the distributors have a say with regards to fresh film-makers breaking into Hollywood – don't try to reinvent the wheel, just stick with the profile. When someone orders a meal in a restaurant, they know what they are getting and sometimes they will keep coming back for that same meal. It's the same with movies. If the audience is going for thrillers, they know that there will be the cliché mirror trick, or the shadow crossing frame, and even the foreign shape standing in the background. That was a big lesson for me: stop trying to be original and just give the audience what they are used to. When a film-maker has built credibility, only then can we risk experimenting with passion projects."

Davy says he was introduced to the idea that he couldn't expect to walk away with a pay cheque on his first few projects. "I take the risk with my investors. It's a name game and it can take a few films before our name is worth playing."

Previous projects

Lords of Exile, an adventure drama full length feature film, is among his previous projects. It's the story of an exploited orphan living on the streets of South Africa who faces a sadistic, abusive villain. He flees, coming across a native family. They teach him their ways and he later uses those skills as a vigilante targeting perpetrators who take part in crimes against children.

Davy says that the idea for the movie was sparked "after the death of six-year-old Stephen Siebert which not only shook the small town where the incident took place but also the entire country. I felt it necessary to incorporate that as a back story."

Film-makers don't want to preach, he explains, but there is an opportunity to expose truth and send some sort of moral message, whether it be for the good in our race or the bad.

Another recent Davy project is a documentary with Donald Schultz called The Inner Core. It investigates rhino poaching. "We are both passionate about the safety of these creatures. It's our duty to do our part. The documentary has recently been completed and [we are] awaiting word on distribution."

Drawn to the industry

About his interest in film, he says: "As a 16-year-old I watched a film that would soon after become a turning point in my life. The title of the film is irrelevant but I realised how much of an effect films can have on people and how decisions can be made based on what people's interpretation of the film may be at the time. A film-maker never knows at what specific moment a film may catch their audience. An example of that would be a positive or negative thing said to a child at a critical phase that could have violent or passive repercussions in their adult years. The power of film can save lives; I know because it saved mine."

Now, 17 years later, as an artist he's been in the business for 12 years, as a business man he's been in the arts for five years. "I've learned that the sooner we stop looking at this business as a pleasure, the more of a pleasure the business will become. I have found that art plays such a small role in it. It's science versus maths in a virtual expression that puts bums on seats – that's the bottom line."

Career highlights are diverse: there were the lions brushing his elbow while he filmed a buffalo kill, charging leopards and elephants in close encounters, being shot at by poachers, and the on-going everyday improvisation on film sets.

Describes himself as somewhat of a loner, he points out that his early years as a film-maker were spent in the bush filming wildlife as that is where his passion lay. "Once I started realising my focus lay deeper in storytelling, I became more involved in the specifics of seeing the production through from script to screen no matter what genre.

"Modesty has always been my downfall in that once a production was done, I'd sever the chord and push my focus to the next project without looking back. Unfortunately that [took] a heavy price in that those records are lost but would have helped me now in building credibility. I think I would have been slightly more advanced in my career if I had paid more attention to building a name over the titles I worked on."

But over the years he has learned all aspects of the business, and says: "I try to keep as flexible as possible for the various clientele that have their preferred genre, so whether it be piloting the plane, being the cinematographer, the writer, producer or director, it's good to have a finger the entire process.

"However, I have to be careful that I don't become a jack of all trades and a master of none, so it's important I know my limits. In this day and age it's difficult to survive carrying only one title so we all have to learn to spread our interests somewhat, especially in South Africa."

The best part of his job, though, is the flexibility and spontaneity of the business. "My office is wherever the next shoot takes me. I also find that I constantly challenge myself and as a result I grow as a person and as a film-maker. As much as we may think we know, we are only skimming the cream of what is really out there. There is so much under the surface that we could not possibly know in one lifetime. That is what I find so attractive about the business; it keeps me on my toes and hungry for success.

"It's like sailing: one moment the sea can be calm but the next it can be 40-foot swells with 200km winds. One learns a lot about themselves in moments like that."

About Joburg, he says: "I have shot many things in the city and it very much depends on the story as to what part I would classify my favourite, but off the bat, I would say Sophiatown. It's got a nice vibe; it's open enough to breath and there are accessible elevated areas to establish the city for those atmospheric shots. Contrary to popular belief, it's actually a pretty city if you catch it in the right light and at the right angle."