It seems there are countless ways for a filmmaker to trip themselves up on their first film. That’s not to say that producers with one or more films already behind them don’t still make mistakes…but the big ones you learn from and you don’t repeat. I often say I made a 1000 mistakes on my first film, but I only made 900 on my second. Although I’ll never get it right, and I suspect no one does, the mistakes we make as filmmakers get smaller and less frequent. The problem is, there is no one resource that lays all of these potential pitfalls out for the newbie producer/director, so I’ll continue to write about mistakes that should and can be avoided when entering this minefield known as indy filmmaking.
I recently lost a deal on a film I was repping because the filmmaker hadn’t disclosed to me that he had put the film on Amazon.com for sale. This had been a while ago and only for a few months, but the buyer found out it had been for sale “anywhere” and lost interest. It didn’t matter that the filmmaker had sold less then 30 DVDs this way and that it had not been available anywhere else. The point is, the film felt “old” to the buyer. Selling your film yourself, directly to consumers, should only take place when you’ve given up on every other option. The reality is, it’s a tiny, tiny market anyway. Filmmakers figure they’ll sell at a least a few hundred copies because the actors and the crew and their friends and family will all buy a copy. It sounds good in theory – you sell a few hundred DVDs at $20 a piece and you clear maybe $5000. Hear this now – it doesn’t happen. If you’re not giving away copies to the people involved (which is the norm unless they’ve been reasonably well paid for their work, and often even in that case), you’ll be surprised at how few actually pony up the dough to buy one. Yes, as a last resort, there’s no reason to not throw it up on Amazon or sell it directly from your site, but know that doing so will be the final death throe of your picture. That’s all you’ll get…but sometimes something is better than nothing. It’s better to be the dog getting the table scraps than the be the scraps themselves…
Lesson number two for today is about putting your film on IMDB. This is another area where filmmaker do themselves harm (translation – “fuck themselves”). This was less of an issue in the past, but you need to face the fact that your film will not be completed when you project. In fact, if you add 3-6 months to that date…your film still won’t be done. If you add 2 or 3 years, that might be a bit closer to the mark. The exception is if you’re willing to sacrifice quality which most filmmakers are not. The most definitive truth in filmmaking is “You can have it good, fast and cheap…but only 2 of the 3.” Most new filmmakers want it good. Cheap is generally non-negotiable unless you have a rich uncle funding your project who has opened his checkbook to you (or you’re like me and can make thousands a night as a gigolo to help fund your post production). That leaves fast which, sadly, isn’t going to happen. Where this is going is that too many films have release dates on IMDB that are WAY off. Sometimes these dates are hard or impossible to change. As IMDB has become a behemoth, like many big companies, they’ve become impersonal and forgotten about the little guy. I’ve heard over and over from filmmakers who put up a projected date for their film which posted as the actual release date and when the film was finally done two years later, they couldn’t get it changed. Either they can’t get someone at IMDB to make the switch, or they film showed as a rough cut in a film festival two years ago and IMDB is considering that the release date, or some other complication. One of the first places distributors and sales agents look is the IMDB. If they see a date older than year, many will automatically pass. They don’t consider that the film took longer to finish than originally expected, they just assume the film has been floating around unsold for a long time and if not one else wanted it….
Our third and final lesson for the day is also about the IMDB. NEVER put your budget on the IMDB until you’re done trying to sell it. Once your film is sold or passed off to your distributor or sales agent, talk to him or her about adding this if it’s important to you. Don’t take this upon yourself. There is a game that’s played in the industry and, for the most part, that game is – always inflate the budget of your picture. Everyone knows this happens to some degree as prices are usually based on reported budget. The buyers know it, the distributors know it and the sales agents know it. It’s the first time filmmakers who don’t know it and screw themselves. Far too many fools remember the Robert Rodriquez story of “El Mariachi” and how he made the film for “$7000″. Yes, Sony was impressed by how little he spent, but that was a different era. What most people also don’t seem to know is that he spent that money in Mexico which is probably closer to having $40k-$50k and that’s not to mention the $200,000-$300,000 Sony put into the audio remastering of the film. There is NO original audio in that movie; it was all redone in post. The days of “El Mariachi” are gone and have been for decades. If you brag about how cheaply you made your film it’s tantamount to saying “I have no business sense, offer me as little money as possible because I’m a moron.” The more a buyer or distributor thinks you spent, the more they feel they’ll have to pay to make a deal. The hard part is when you’re asked outright how much the film cost. It’s kind of like asking a woman if her boobs are real – it’s kind of classless to ask it, but that doesn’t stop some people. If you’re foolish enough to answer….
Just more Filmmaking 101
PS. And before someone bring up “Paranormal Activity”, know that Paramount didn’t buy the film BECAUSE it was made for $15k, they bought it in spite of that fact. At some point, the filmmakers were probably asked how much the movie was and if it was before the deal was inked, they may have hurt themselves a bit on the deal. No buyer offers MORE money when the film was made for less than they expected. Best case is, they don’t reduce their offer.