How to make camp films that find their audience

Many filmmakers have had successful careers by making camp films. However, even more filmmakers have tried and failed miserably, resulting in some of the worst films ever. I don’t think anyone sets out to intentionally make a bad film, but there is a fine line of distinction between a camp movie and a bad movie. This is probably the biggest challenge when working on camp productions.

There can be a great advantage to camp films that are created by a writer who also acts and directs the project. A great example of this is Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Multi-talented individuals like Chaplin usually have an incredibly clear vision of their project. For the rest of us, our camp films can be most effective when they are planned and executed carefully from inception to final edit.

The late night picture show

Some of the best camp films have become cult classics. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is probably one of the greatest examples of this. Since its release in 1975, it has had a non-stop theatrical run. You can always find it playing at midnight in at least one theater in America. However, you can also find some truly horrible films playing at midnight inside the same theaters.

Some of these failures have been so bad that audiences find these movies hilarious. A great example of this is The Room. At its screenings, members of the audience typically heckle the film, hurling insults or inserting comedic lines of dialogue, often in unison. Bad cinema has benefited from this type of audience interaction. Because of this, it has its own cult classics like Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space.

However, we still shouldn’t confuse bad film with camp film. This is why it is so important to understand the foundations of camp. Parody and satire are words often used to describe camp movies. Exaggerated acting or an outrageous script might also equate to camp for many people.

So, how do you know if your movie is indeed campy? It seems like this should be an easy distinction to make. When you read the script, shoot the movie, and edit the final project, the camp elements should remain constant. Simple, right? Sometimes there are “happy” surprises in performances that you may not find until you edit the project, but you’ll probably have the best results when you carefully plan each stage of your project.

Over-the-top acting

First, you can avoid bad cinema by casting and hiring actors who can deliver those over-the-top performances in the way you had imagined them on paper. Sometimes, an actor’s performance can be the decisive element when it comes to camp. Think of what Ryan Reynolds brings to Deadpool. The script is great, but Reynold’s makes Deadpool classic camp.

Some writers and/or actors will exaggerate a possible stereotype for a character. This is apparent in To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert where the actors portray drag queens. Some writers and directors argue that using common stereotypes give actors an advantage because they can over-exaggerate that stereotype to find the humor. Compare the performances of Divine as Edna Turnblad in the original Hairspray and John Travolta as Edna Turnblad in the musical remake of the film. Who do you think gives the stronger camp performance? Why? Your answers to these questions may help you define the way you want to approach camp elements with your actors.

To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995)

The 2012 Brazilian horror/comedy Nervo Craniano Zero is a camp film shot in the style of a telenovela. The amazing performances from the cast benefited from the strong direction by Paulo Biscaia Filho. At a film festival, the director was asked how he prepared for filming. He noted that he hired very experienced professional actors and rehearsed them until all of their good acting was gone. The result was performances that were completely and consistently over-the-top. The cast carries the tone of this film and makes it a great watch.

Nervo Craniano Zero (2012)

Open to improv

While controlling an actor’s performance can be beneficial, the same could be said of the director who allows the actor to creatively add to the film through improv. Actor Robin Williams had a talent for over-the-top acting. He was also known for his gift at improv. His combined talents made TV series Mork and Mindy a hit. When the series later added comedian Jonathan Winters in a recurring role, the two actors were able to endlessly riff off each other, creating some of the funniest camp performances ever due to their gift of improv and a great understanding of their characters.

Consider your source

Many of the best camp films parody other films. Examples include Airplane! (Airplane), Galaxy Quest (primarily Star Trek), Robin Hood: Men in Tights (primarily Robin Hood Prince of Thieves), Fifty Shades of Black (Fifty Shades of Gray), The Starving Games (The Hunger Games), and Your Highness (Princess Bride). However, it can be challenging to have a successful parody if the audience has not seen the source. James Franco gives a memorable performance as Tommy and Johnny in The Disaster Artist; however, if you haven’t seen The Room, you can’t really appreciate Franco’s embodiment of writer/actor/director Tommy Wiseau.

Similarly, camp films based on parodies of TV series can underperform at the box office if the TV show has been off the air for too long. The recent film reincarnations of TV favorites CHIPS and Baywatch had some wonderfully campy performances, but many audience members missed the parody. Instead of finding the campy performances comedic, some audience members mis-classified the acting as “bad” because they missed the references.

Broadening your focus on a specific genre may make your camp film more accessible. Mel Brooks does this exceptionally well with Young Frankenstein (Frankenstein classics) and High Anxiety (various Hitchcock films). Monty Python and the Holy Grail is highly successful due to the familiarity of King Arthur’s tales for most people. It helps to have a good understanding of the genre you plan to parody; viewing recent hits in a particular genre or sub-genre that you plan to spoof can provide inspiration for your screenwriting. A good example of this is Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead which does a great job at poking fun of the zombie sub-genre. Similarly, Sharknado is a ridiculously fun take on recent disaster films.

Tell me a story

Let’s take a moment to consider the screenplay. Some writers approach comedy by writing funny set pieces and then placing them into a story. This approach can work well if the set pieces are written for a specific actor who plans to camp it up; however, it’s important to remember that in this situation you are relying on this character. Meaning the actor portraying him or her — must not only drive but also carry the film. In this case, you may want to infuse additional elements of parody or satire into your story to even out the script.

Other writers are mindful of the genre or films they plan to parody, so their screenwriting approach tends to be more traditional as they create a camp story with over-the-top characters and dialogue that mirrors the parody’s source. In this scenario, the writers will often punch up the story after it’s written with additional jokes or set pieces. There is one caveat that applies to both of these writing approaches: You may think your script is funny, but the rest of the world may disagree. A table read can help alleviate this problem.

Hearing your words read out loud and watching how the audience responds can be a very effective way to determine if your film is really funny and if the camp elements are working.

While I believe that table reads are great for scripts of any genre, I think it’s vital to do at least one table read for a camp film. Depending on the size and scope of your project, you might cast and hire professional actors for the read or recruit friends to play the parts. You will also want to recruit as many people as possible to be part of your audience. Hearing your words read out loud and watching how the audience responds can be a very effective way to determine if your film is really funny and if the camp elements are working.

Fix it in post

Now, let’s consider how editing can affect a camp film. Like any comedy, timing and rhythm are critical elements. Look at films from the genres that you are spoofing. Consider using the timing and rhythm from these movies as guides for your edit. Often, this can be a very effective approach. Additionally, an exaggerated film score and/or sound design can also enhance a camp film. To round out the editing process, cheesy visual effects can add humor to your movie; Sharknado is a great example of this.

Directors doing it right

The role of the director is paramount in a camp film. Some directors have had long careers in the genre. Lloyd Kaufman turned parody and satirical camp into a very well known brand. The director of the Toxic Avenger franchise has a host of other hits such as Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead which he distributes under his Troma brand. In addition to his own films, Kaufman is known for providing distribution for many independent filmmakers whose camp films have a similar sensibility. Because of this, the Troma brand has become synonymous with camp films for many fans.

Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead (2006)

Director John Waters has also had a successful career making satirical camp films. In addition to the original Hairspray, films like Pink Flamingos, Polyester, Pecker, and Cecil B. DeMented are just a few of his classics. Indeed, these camp films have earned him a cult following.

Director Mel Brooks took camp mainstream with hits such as Young Frankenstein, The Producers (the original), Blazing Saddles, High Anxiety, Spaceballs, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Brooks also produced camp on TV where he is best known as the creator of the classic spy spoof, Get Smart.

The Good, the Bad, and the Campy

In the cesspool of indie films, people often lump camp movies together with bad cinema. There is an art to the camp genre; however, like art, it still tends to be subjective. Knowing your audience is essential. You will often get the best response to your film when it plays to the audience who loves the movie or genre that you’re spoofing.

Think of the Tim Burton’s 2012 film version of Dark Shadows that starred Johnny Depp. The film under-performed at the box office. I think this was, in part, because the audience who loved the TV series was not the same audience who showed up at movie theaters. Any genre movie can suffer from this. There’s been a recent trend with the studios to create advertising for genre films that totally misrepresent the movie.

A great example of this was the trailer for Crimson Peak, Guillermo del Toro’s stunning Gothic romance that was marketed as a horror film. After the tragedy of Crimson Peak underperforming, Del Toro became “hands on” when it came to the distribution of his films. This approach paid off with two Oscar wins for his next film, The Shape of Water. There’s a valuable lesson here for indie filmmakers and producers of camp films. Your work doesn’t end when the final cut of the film is encoded. Quite the contrary, that’s when your work begins, because it’s your job to find the audience for your film.

Finding your audience

Well-made camp films can be very successful when the movie does find its audience. A great example of this began with a short, What We Do In The Shadows: Interviews With Some Vampires, created by New Zealand filmmakers Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement. Based on its initial reception, the duo went on to expand the premise into the feature What We Do in the Shadows. The movie began its U.S. run screening at film festivals, often in an evening or a midnight time slot that traditionally was reserved for horror films.

What We Do in the Shadows: Interviews with Some Vampires (2005)

This festival scheduling approach was effective. What We Do in the Shadows quickly developed a fan base generating great word-of-mouth recommendations. After a small theatrical run that grossed more than $6.9 million dollars internationally — very impressive due to the limited number of theaters that screened the film — the movie became a hit on streaming services and cable TV. The filmmakers went on to launch the story as a TV series that’s now on FX.

What We Do in the Shadows is a Cinderella story for filmmakers, especially for those who produce camp. Your movie may not fit into that glass slipper, but with proper planning and execution, your camp film just might be the best at the ball.

Odin Lindblom
Odin Lindblom
Odin Lindblom is a director, cinematographer and award-winning editor whose work includes film, commercials and corporate video.

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