Film Schooling, Part 5:
Pre-Production – The Director

(This is Part Five of an ongoing series to help educate aspiring filmmakers
on the process of making their first film. Previous articles in this series
can be found at BleedingCool.com and MovieIndustry.com)

So now you’ve used my easy steps in the last four parts of this series and have a big bag full of money (or illegal substances you can sell to get the money…wait, that was my other article) with which to make your movie. Cool. Good for you. Now let’s get to work.

Pre-production is everything that needs to be done up to the moment when the camera rolls for the first time. This is the planning part of the project and planning is everything. Although you can make or break the entire movie during this time, at the very least, what you do during these weeks or months will set the stage for how smoothly things go for you. And whom you hire will be the most significant set of decisions you can make. Obviously, this applies to both cast and crew, so let’s start with the big cheese – the director.directors-chair-MEME

I realize it’s quite possible you already have your director picked out. Often times it’s the writer who insists on directing his own script. It may be a director who has stepped into the producer role to put a film together so that he can hire himself for the job he REALLY wants. If this position isn’t already committed to someone, choose very carefully. Yeah, sure, filmmaking is a “team effort” and all that other group effort crap, but it’s the director’s vision of the project that will make it to the screen. It’s the director’s attitude that will set the stage. Find someone with vision but also the ability to work well with people, relay his thoughts succinctly and quickly, be someone people can look up to, have a sense for pacing, have a sense for acting, understand the human dynamic, know how to juggle and break dance, understand quantum physics and have a viable new theory for an as-yet-untested cure for cancer.

Everyone thinks directing is easy. The reality is that most people aren’t very good at it. Many can’t handle the stress…but, darn it, don’t listen to me, I’d rather see you go out there and fail for yourself! The hard part is, until someone has done it, you really don’t know if they can do it at all. Directing a short film is a different animal. Directing a play qualifies you about as much as directing traffic. This is the danger of first time directors – it’s a crap shoot, a coin toss, it Russian roulette, but unlike in The Deer Hunter there is only one empty chamber instead of three.

Another key problem with directors, especially first time directors, is ego. You’ll see this on films of all sizes, but it’s amazing how wearing the big boy pants can turn some people into instant douchebags – or somehow allows the inner douchebag that’s been festering below the surface for years to finally break out. “Run, little douchebag! Run wild! You’re finally free!” Be aware of this. Watch out for it. The director doesn’t need to be loved, but he should at least be liked. The “Because I’m the director, bitch!” mentality is cancerous. Breakdowns in crew infect productions quickly and disastrously. It’s fascinating to see an accountant making three grand for directing his first project with a $50k budget acting like the Joseph Stalin of film. An awful lot of people get drunk on power, even the misconception of power that comes with a little taste of it on a small project. A brilliant man once said – “You’re not REALLY a director or writer or producer until you’re making a living at it,” (yes, that brilliant person was me). I know a guy who tells people he’s a “TV personality”. No, dude, you’re a waiter who has a show on public access. I don’t tell people I’m a marine because I play Call of Duty (although I have been known to tell hot chicks that I invented toothpaste – it actually worked until I met the woman who invented teeth).

Once your crackerjack director is on board, he has a number of tasks to prepare. Now, some of these will be left up to him entirely and others will be a collaboration between the director (though in some cases he’s cut out on some/all of these), producers, the cinematographer and in some cases even investors. These decisions include what format to shoot on and what equipment to use, casting, crewing, locations, number of days/hours at given locations or for given shots/scenes, and what every director seems to most want to do – choosing, setting up and shooting the scenes per his soon-to-be-legendary vision. Let’s start with that.

During pre-production, many insist that the director HAS to storyboard, that it’s a MUST. Most first time filmmakers (including myself all those years ago in my auteur virginity) buy into this. We cinephiles were brought up on the amazing storyboards of professional artists from our favorite scenes in Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Matrix. Those beautifully crafted images which look like pages straight out of a comic book that seemed to morph perfectly into shots and scenes that matched exactly in the final, flawless picture that planted the seed for a dream of a career in film in the first place. Here’s the thing – you’re not shooting Star Wars or The Matrix. You don’t have a studio budget. You probably don’t have an amazing artist to draw thousands of pictures for you and, here’s the big one, you don’t NEED them.

Storyboards are great for complex action scenes. They’re great for difficult camera moves. They’re a wonderful tool for relaying to the cast and crew a tangible vision of the intent of a scene or shot. In many cases they absolutely help. In most cases they serve no real purpose. In most films in general and certainly with most indy films, you won’t be having that many complex shots or scenes that benefit from this level of preparation. You’ll need storyboards as much as you need to hire an artist to delivery a version of the script on parchment hand-written in calligraphy. When two actors are sitting across from each other talking, what’s the point of a storyboard? None whatsoever, but an awful lot of first time filmmakers are caught up in the “necessity” of it and actually storyboard everything.

So keep the storyboarding to a minimum. There’s better use of your time. I recommend a shot list most of the time. I find it’s best for the director to come on set knowing what he expects from the scene. This could be as simple as: Shot One – master shot, Mike and Ike sitting at the table, Shot Two – coverage on Mike, Shot Three – coverage on Ike. Of course, you may have five shots or ten or even more for a given scene, but that’s where being a competent director comes in – knowing your resources, your schedule, your needs, your wants and having a pragmatic approach to it all. You’ll never have as much time as you want. You might for this scene, but not for that one. Time might be ample today, but tomorrow you’ll be cursing the sun or the clock. Just because you want eight set-ups doesn’t mean you have the time to get them…and the film might not be any better for it even if you do.

I’m sure some of you bright folks realized I said a shot list is recommended “most of the time.” Yes, there are time when even a shot list isn’t essential. If you’re doing a scene like I mentioned above, a “master, cover, cover,” you can write that down if you like and even break it down further if it makes you feel better about yourself. It’s certainly good for the rest of the team to have an idea of what’s in the plan for the day, so that’s worth considering as well, but there are other factors that may affect the scenes or shot.

Some directors like to take a more organic approach to their scenes. Even some big directors, like Clint Eastwood and Christopher Nolan, often walk onto set without a shot list of any kind. There is something to be said for showing up at a location and seeing how it plays out with a minimum of direction. You may want Actor A to start at Spot X and move to Spot Y on a certain line, but it may feel and look more natural to let the actor experience the scene as their instincts dictate. They know their lines (you hope) and they know where the scene is going. Let them test it out. If it works, set up your shots around that. The more complex a scene is, the harder it is to craft certain elements and have them all come together in a way that feels natural. If you rehearse first and only then find your shots, you’ll still have time to prepare them while the talent is getting ready.Clint-Eastwood-on-set

The reality is, if you haven’t directed before, you don’t know what your style is. Frankly, you don’t know anything, so this first film is a very expensive (and probably painful) learning experience. Don’t storyboard every shot because you “think” that’s how it’s “supposed” to be done. Every director has their own style. Find your style; don’t try to mimic someone else’s.

Casting is another place where the director is generally given veto power. Again, this may be an area where elements are already in place. Talent is often attached to a picture to help secure funding, though probably not on your dinky little first film. There are times when directors hate certain actors or feel they are a terrible fit for their roles, but are forced to work with them. Deal with it. There is politics in film. I was on a movie where the primary financier insisted his girlfriend got the second female lead. Yes, this kind of thing happens, especially at this level. Money talks and more loudly than the director. Aside from those necessary evils of casting, it’s generally the director who chooses the team he’s going to put on the celluloid field, though it’s the producer who hires the director, so, technically, it’s at the producer’s discretion. Then again, a good producer knows to pick his battles wisely as well.

Obviously there are many other tasks, both significant and mundane, that are heaped on the director’s shoulders throughout the pre-production phase. More of these will come up in later articles and other new ones will rear their ugly heads during the actual process when you find yourself in the trenches. Hey, I’m not writing a novel here about directing, just giving you some broad strokes. My book on directing “dos & don’ts” will come later, but expect mostly “don’ts.” I’ve certainly made my share of mistakes in that arena…the one goal I’ve embraced is to never make the same one twice.

We will circle around to the director again throughout this series, but next week we’ll move on to the other two most important positions on the film; the cinematographer and the 1st A.D. See you then, nubian!

Chris Hood is a writer, producer and director of such films as “Counterpunch” starring Danny Trejo and “Dirty Dealing 3D” with Michael Madsen and C. Thomas Howell. He is also owner of Robin Hood Films, a Las Vegas-based distribution company representing English language films around the world and operates a film blog at MovieIndustry.com. He’s also dead sexy. (Mr. Hood denies any involvement in the creation of this mini-bio.)

Film Schooling, Part 4:
Development – The Money

(This is Part Four of an ongoing series to help educate aspiring filmmakers
on the process of making their first film. Previous articles in this series
can be found at BleedingCool.com and MovieIndustry.com)

At this point, under my supreme guidance, you’re continuing down the hopeful yellow brick road of filmmaking that you’ll soon finds actually bypasses Oz leading instead to the Radioactive Wasteland of Failed Dreams (read the book, it was cut from the film). Anyway, you now have your producing partner, the script you’re going to turn into a work of genius and a professional business plan to present to your potential investors. Now it’s the hardest step of the process. Getting the money. This is the part that sucks the most. But there is hope. There are options. I’m here to try and pull you out of this Pit of Despair, though I’m not sure if I’m the guy without the brain or the heart (or both). Fallout
Now, how much you’re hoping to raise is going to have a direct bearing on your likelihood of success. This amount has already been predetermined by the budget you put in your prospectus, but hopefully, you haven’t made a bad decision this early on…or that you at least go back and fix it if you have. If you’re trying to raise $1,000,000, you had better have a pretty impressive list of friends and family that you can hit up AND that think the world of you.

Most first films are $100,000 or less. The good news here is that with the proper talented and professional people on your side, you can make a slick, sellable film of great production value with this kind of money. You won’t get “names” in your film at this level, but you can make something that can sell and, quite possibly, get your investors paid back. This should always be Goal One – if your investors so much as break even, they’ll almost always invest with you again and that means you get to keep making movies!

The upside to being your first project is, many, if not most, people can scrape together $50k or $100k through savings, friends, family and credit cards. Of course, when I say most people what’s implied is “most people that have their shit together.” If you’re a smart, focused, well-liked individual that people around you take seriously, they’ll usually trust in you and your endeavors. If you’ve been working toward a dream of filmmaking for a while, you’ll have credibility. By the time I went out to put together money for my first film, I had gone to school for film, shot a no-budget feature length project that turned out nicely, lived in L.A., worked on a number of film and TV shows and written a dozen screenplays. Everyone who knew me knew this was the dream, not a hobby, not a lark. They knew I was serious. As brilliant and charismatic as I am (just ask my mom!), I doubt I would have been able to raise $80k if filmmaking had been my latest in a long line of random, morphing career interests. Will the people you talk to take you seriously? If not, you’d better have someone leading the charge that they do. At this point in your career, it has almost nothing to do with the project, but the people behind it.

The reality is, it is these friends and family and your personal funds that get this first project made. And I believe many, if not most, aspiring filmmakers can put a film together this way. Most of us know some people with money. Not a lot of money necessarily, but most of us know people who can write a check for $1000 or $5000 or even $10,000 dollars. All of the money for my first film came together this way. My parents, my sister, my girlfriend, my best friend, my best friend’s father, a wealthy friend of my sister and a business associate of my father all put money into the project. I still feel tremendous gratitude for the faith these people showed in me.

I wish my first film, Impact, had done better. Despite a degree of success in the film festival circuit and being a movie I’m very proud of, I chose poorly. {insert knight fro Last Crusade here} I tried to make a film that would win Sundance and get Miramax calling. I was terribly naïve, but that seems to be the mindset with the vast majority of new filmmakers I talk to. They all want to make the next Brother’s McMullen when they should be looking to make the next El Mariachi. Because if your Brother’s McMullen doesn’t win Sundance and get Miramax calling (which it won’t), that film is going to die on the vine, never finding a home. If your El Mariachi doesn’t get Harvey Weinstein to notice your greatness, you still have an action film you can sell. And guess what? People like and want action films whether they’ve won film festival or not. Be smart, my little chitlins.

So I put together my $80k in units of $1k, $5k and $10k, my girlfriend and myself putting up the largest share. And, of course, I had my credit cards waiting in the wings to finish the job (which would get called into service). Those options were available to me and I used them. And you can do this too, but know that you can do it ONCE. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter how good the film is or how proud you are of it, you cannot go back to people that lost money on your first film. Hell, even if you get close to making them whole, you have something there.impact

Another popular route for indy film money is crowd funding. Yet here I’m going to take some more wind out of your sails (I’m like the Grim Reaper of film news waiting to use my scythe to impale your clueless ass!). The crowd funding dynamic has changed. The competition is fierce. That’s not to say it can’t or won’t work for you, but it takes a lot more than a slick video on Kickstarter or IndieGoGo. Your project needs to stand out and that’s a much tougher prospect than most people realize.

Part of the problem, aside from the glut of artists vying for the same finite funds, is big fish exploiting the system. Assholes like Zach Braff have fucked things up for all unknowns trying to raise money this way. The quick back story about this selfish fuck stick is that he wanted to make a follow-up to his film Garden State. It’s bad enough that Toolbag Braff, with a net worth of over $20m, could certainly finance the film himself, but he even mentioned (boasted) that he had studio funds available to him to make the movie, but felt he would he would have more “creative freedom” if funded by Kickstarter backers (i.e. suckers). So he raised a record $3.1 million which, conveniently, isn’t an investment and doesn’t have to be paid back. I don’t know, but it strikes me more as a way to exploit your fans and get a free $3m check than actually making a stand for “creative freedom.” And yes, you read that right – he had the money available to him to make the movie from a production company and this multi-millionaire of excremental seepage still went to his middle class fans to give him the money to make it. So that’s the tale of that douche bag (but really, I like the guy, much the same way I like constipation and gonorrhea).Zach_Braff_comic
So what was once a somewhat level playing field is now far from it. If someone can put their $20 bucks in a Zach Cuntly Braff (actually on his birth certificate) film or your project…why would they go with you? That is what you have to sell if you go this route. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but what is your “angle?”

There is one thing that seems to help considerably in the crowd funding space: A built-in audience. Now you as a first-time filmmaker won’t have this, but perhaps someone or something about your project has it. If you have an actor committed with some kind of following, you might be able to use that. If your source material has a fan base, that’s something that could help you. Do you have a “theme” that people want to inherently support? A movie about substance abuse or religion or gay rights or a real hero can inspire folks to pony up some dough (Which means a film about a physically deformed, gay, Christian folk hero with a substance abuse problem, is a home run, baby! Oh, wait, they made that movie…it was called “W”). If people have strong opinions about something, they’re far more likely to support you even if they don’t know you. The downside is that these are the kinds of films I’m warning you not to make. Sadly there’s nothing inspiring or controversial about a guy running around the woods hacking up drunk college kids…seems the sadist contingent in crowd funding circles is relatively small, unfortunately.
The third traditional approach to finding your money is reaching out to strangers. Now, I’d be remiss to not mention that there are laws about this sort of thing. The S.E.C. has always had strict guidelines about this so if you decide to go this route, you should make yourself aware of what those rules actually are (or don’t for all I care, I’ve said my peace). The good news is that as part of the new JOBS act, the restrictions on this sort of thing are being notably relaxed.

The tough part about this type of soliciting is getting in touch with these people. How do you reach them? Generally there’s going to be a cost associated, be it a finder’s fee or advertising and the conversion rate for something like this is almost impossibly small. The reality is, pretty much everyone knows the odds of making money on this type of investment is almost zero. So what are you selling if you do get these doors open?

Of course, there are many other routes to seek funding, but I’ve stuck with the main ones; the ones that are most worth pursuing and most often used, but be creative. Think outside the box. Make sure you always consider things from the perspective of why the other party should want to help you. It’s obvious what you get out of this, but what do they get out of it? If they don’t know you personally, what’s in it for them? Most people know investing in an untested, untried new filmmaker won’t end well financially. Why should they trust you? Why should they invest in you? The fact that you really, really, really want to make a movie doesn’t cut it. Make them WANT to be involved. There are people with more money than they know what to do with and financial return is not always their primary motivation. There are people who have money and want to be involved in something creative. There are angels who just like to help other people realize their dreams. There are men who invest in film because they think they can be a big shot in the movie business and get the related perks and bragging rights. Some men and women just want the excitement of being involved in a film project. Although most investors look at the feasibility of the investment first and foremost, there are others who have different agendas. Some of those agendas you can accommodate. The same rule applies to investors as people you’re making the movie for – “Know your audience.”

In Part Five we’ll jump in to pre-production as I’m confident you’ll have all of your funding by next week. I’ll see you there!

Chris Hood is a writer, producer and director of such films as “Counterpunch” starring Danny Trejo and “Dirty Dealing 3D” with Michael Madsen and C. Thomas Howell. He is also owner of Robin Hood Films, a Las Vegas-based distribution company representing English language films around the world and operates a film blog at MovieIndustry.com. He’s also dead sexy. (Mr. Hood denies any involvement in the creation of this mini-bio.)

Film Schooling, Part 3: Development – The Investor Prospectus

     (This is Part Three of an ongoing series to help educate aspiring filmmakers on the process of making their first film. Previous articles in this series can be found at BleedingCool.com and MovieIndustry.com)

If you’ve been following my previous supra-genius advice in this series (yes, I tested at Wile E. Coyote levels.), you now have the script you want to shoot and a complementary producing partner for your film. Now comes the hardest part. Please know now that there is no “easy” part. Filmmaking is grueling. There are moments of fun and even bliss and it can be rewarding and lucrative, but it’s never “easy.” Make no mistake, getting the money for a film is almost always the hardest part. If it’s not hard, you should have tried to get more…  (Selling your film is the other hardest part, but we’ll get to that in time.)

Now, we’re going to assume you don’t have a rich uncle or trust fund you can raid to finance your film. If for some reason that is your case, good for you (and by the way, the rest of us hate you). In the real world, you have to go out and find the money. pile-of-money-wallpaperIf this is your first film, there is actually one advantage you have that we’ll get to in Part Four.

Before you can go out and solicit money for your opus, you need a strategy. This is one of those places where the smart business partner will be able to contribute. You’ll need a prospectus showing potential investors what you’re planning on doing, how you’re going to go about it and why it’s a good investment for them. For the record, filmmaking is a terrible investment. Terrible. And I mean like on the level of penny stocks awful. Like loading up on Twinkies after hearing Hostess was going under. Like betting the “over” on how long Chris Brown goes before beating up another woman. The reason I bring this up is because although it’s painfully true, it can be overcome. Almost all first-time films lose money. And by “almost all” I would estimate 99% and that’s not an exaggeration. Almost. Every. One.

So for the sake of education, let’s take a detour to touch on the topic of why almost every first-time film is a financial disaster for the people who make and invest in it:

#1: The film doesn’t get finished. This is actually a larger number than you would expect. Films run out of money and people lose interest. It’s not uncommon for a small film to drag out for two or three years or more. Five plus years isn’t terribly uncommon. It takes a hell of a lot of fortitude to stick with something that has required such a massive financial and time investment and that has returned absolutely nothing to date (like a marriage to Heather Mills), which is why so many projects are abandoned.

#2: The film is bad. Yes, “bad” is a subjective term, so it’s probably more appropriate to say the film doesn’t meet a minimum threshold of professionalism. This is the result of incompetence and/or delusions of grandeur (think Ed Wood or Uwe Boll). There are a surprising number of people who decide to make a film that have no experience whatsoever. Having seen 5000 films does not qualify you to make a good one any more than reading 5000 books makes you a good novelist. No matter how ambitious, a team of inexperienced, untrained neophyte film wannabes will fail every time. So if you know nothing about making a film, you need to make damn sure you hire people who do.

#3: The sales approach suffers from bad marketing. When the film is done and it’s time to get a distributor or sales agent, far too many drop the ball horribly. I see this often. Every. Day.

#4: The distribution agreement ass rapes you. Most distribution and sales agent agreements fuck over the filmmaker. That is a terrible, unfortunate, dirty little not-so-secret of this business.

I won’t go into detail here on #3 and #4 as we’ll touch on those more later in this series. The first two are the ones you need to fear at this stage.

So let’s get back on point. What do you need in your prospectus? You need whatever it takes to get your investors excited about the film and give them the idea that it’s a decent investment. At this point, it’s about sales. You’re selling the project and you’re selling yourself. In many cases it’s the latter that will get you the money. If you can’t sell yourself or you’re not good at sales in general, someone else should be leading this charge (again, this is why there should be a businessperson in the mix).

I’ve seen hundreds of prospectuses for film and they range from slick, smart and successful to “what retard put this together?” Your prospectus is an extension of you and reflects on you and every member of your team. It needs to look professional. If you’re trying to raise $500k to make a film, your business plan should be as impressive as if you were trying to raise $500k for a restaurant or any other endeavor. This is business. You can hope the business side is secondary to the investor, but there’s no reason to not take this approach…and there’s no excuse for it.

Here are the items I recommend in an investor proposal:

1. A “concept” poster. Give them something tangible. Something real. Show them what the poster might look like when they show up to the big premiere (but don’t tell them it will probably be 4 years from now). If this looks professional, it will feel like a “real” movie. I can’t express how important a good poster is. Find a way to get something as slick as possible. It’s money well spent.

Note: A poster needs to be done by a graphic artist. Period. I don’t care how good you are with creating Facebook memes with Photoshop, if you’re not a graphic artist, fine one!  Here’s a good example…er, should I say “bad” example…Christmas-Ride-Christian-Movie-Christian-Film-DVD2-235x340

2. A synopsis/outline/treatment. Keep this short. A page at most. It can be a half page or even a paragraph. Make a note that the screenplay is available upon request but stick to the adage – “Leave them wanting more.” Tease them a bit.

3. Biographies of the key people involved (optional). You can mention you went to film school and where. Mention a few of the films you’ve worked so the prospective investor knows you’re not completely green. Let the reader know why you’re qualified doing the task you’ll be doing on the film. We don’t need to know the writer had poetry published in his college magazine. We don’t need to know the producer was a personal driver for Joan Collins. Stay focused. Tell us why you’re qualified. If you can’t, you probably aren’t.

4. Budget. Money people need to see this. It shows them you know your shit. If you’re asking for $500k, an investor is going to want to know “Why $500k and not $450k or $550k?” Is that number arbitrary?  At this point you don’t need a fully itemized 15 page budget (at least not in the proposal), but at least what’s called a “top sheet” from the budget with amounts for the main categories and totals.

5. Terms. What does the investor get for his money and how can he expect to be paid back? A common structure is for the investor(s) to receive all revenues until he’s been paid back 110% and from there share in 50% of all additional revenues. This is the closest thing to a “norm,” but it comes down to whatever you and the other party(ies) agrees to.

What to avoid:

1. Comparables. This is used all the time and the reality is, it’s completely useless and utterly subjective (unless it’s a calculated tease and/or false promise). It seems every filmmaker with a business plan for a horror film includes information about The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity as if those are the “norms” of indy filmmaking in the horror genre. Some people take this approach to hook investors. I find it disingenuous as the comparables are always success stories which is a bit deceptive. On the other hand, sales expectations are fine if they’re realistic. Do your research. Come up with numbers for domestic (theatrical, if that’s a possibility, VOD, DVD, cable, etc.) and foreign sales. This information is out there. Find it.

2. Biographies of supporting team members. Far too often I see pages and pages about the writer, director, producers, department heads and actors whom no one has ever heard of. This is filler and it’s obviously filler if the bios are for people who have never done anything before. I sometimes see entire pages devoted to the composer or make-up artist or associate producer, complete with photo.  Why is this in there? Is an investor supposed to be impressed that you have a guy willing to be gaffer on your film? If I put together a restaurant proposal, I might mention the chef and the G.M. I’m not going to have a bio for the hostess or the day manager. Now, if your make-up artist is an Oscar winner and you’re doing a zombie film, that’s worth a mention. If your composer did the score for Avatar, probably worth a plug as well. Be smart about it.

3. Biographies of D-list (and below) talent. Some proposals will have several pages with pictures and bios of actors whom readers have never seen or heard of. Unless you’re doing this to bait investors, and there are times for that, avoid it. When people think of movies, they think of movie stars. Don’t remind them that it’s “not that kind of film”. When it comes up, and it will, be honest and if you aren’t budgeting for name talent, you can say that. Now, if your main prospective investor happens to be dating the cute, young lady you’re willing to cast if he ponies up the dough, treat her like an A-lister in the business plan. If your biggest name was on one season of Star Trek: Voyager from 2007-2008, that is not a “name” star. He’s probably not worth including (again, unless a prospective investor is a Trekkie).

Now, you can put “hopeful” or “tentative” casting decisions, but I warn about being dishonest here. If you tease about getting Paul Giamatti and end up with Paul Bettany, that’s okay. If you promise Tom Hanks and cast Tom Arnold, prepare for some pissed off investors.

4. The contract. You should always have something legal in hand ready to go, but it shouldn’t be part of the proposal. It should also be approved by a lawyer (and I can already hear the groans about this). Yes, lawyers suck. We all know this. And they’re overpriced. And they smell like cabbage. We don’t like dealing with them. But wait until you start talking to some “name” actor that wants $10,000 a day along with a list of demands…you’ll start wishing you could trade those prima donnas 1 for 2 with those scumbag lawyers! (apologies for being redundant)

There are certainly other things that can be included and others that definitely don’t belong. Use common sense and the best rule (again) is to prepare a prospectus like it was for any other “real” business.

In the broadest possible strokes – make it exciting, make it interesting, make it professional and be honest. Once you have this masterpieces of manipulation in your hands, it’s time to use it to your devious devices. Enter Part Four…coming soon.

     Chris Hood is a writer, producer and director of such films as “Counterpunch” starring Danny Trejo and “Dirty Dealing 3D” with Michael Madsen and C. Thomas Howell.  He is also owner of Robin Hood Films, a Las Vegas-based distribution company representing English language films around the world and operates a film blog at MovieIndustry.com.  He’s also dead sexy.  (Mr. Hood denies any involvement in the creation of this mini-bio.)

Film Schooling, Part 2: Development – The Script and Team

     (This is Part Two of an ongoing series to help educate aspiring filmmakers on the process of making their first film. Previous articles in this series can be found at BleedingCool.com and MovieIndustry.com)

      The first, and possibly most important, part of the filmmaking process is deciding what movie you’re going to make. Also around this time you’ll need to decide with whom you’re going to go on this journey (or “vacation to hell” seems to fit as well). In fact, these are just two of the key issues you need to get right at this early stage of your project which will pave the way for success or ensure imminent, painful, potentially suicide-inducing failure. Such are the trials of this business – there are infinitely more ways to screw up than get it right. And this is where you’ll likely establish if you’re going to be the shark or the chum so decide now – “Fish or be bait.”

Let’s start with the formation of your team.  Now, by “team”, I’m referring only to the key person or persons you’ll be bringing on board at the very beginning. We’re talking about your producing partner; your support system. This is not the time to be thinking about production-related tasks or personnel and this is a common mistake with new filmmakers. People get excited about the process. They get excited about the prospect of looking ahead to the “fun” stuff and waste time and energy on elements that need to be left to their proper order. It’s too early to be focusing on your cinematographer, your composer, which camera you’re going to use, where you’re going to hold auditions or who you’re going to thank when you win your Oscar. Stay focused! This mantra should be with you every step of the way throughout the entire process because there will be hundreds (yes, literally hundreds) of possible distractions throughout this adventure just waiting to trip you up. Stay on point.

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So whom are you taking this journey with? Now, notice I’m not asking “if” you’re going to have someone with you, but “whom” that person will be. The reason I’m so adamant about this is that you’re either a creative person or a business person. You’re not both. Almost no one is. The first and often biggest mistake is a filmmaker thinking they can do it all. You can’t. Accept that now and thank me later. It is imperative that you have at least one business person or you’re almost certain to fail. This failure may not evidence itself until late in the process or even when the film is done, but it will come.

When entering the fray, we often (understandably) turn to those closest to us. Aside from the comfort it affords, it’s often necessary and the only practical option. Friends and family love and support us. They want to help us (most of the time) and want to see us succeed (more often than not). We trust them. And most important – they’ll often work for free. It’s funny how strangers rarely allow themselves to be exploited the way friends do.

Loyalty is a great quality. I’m very loyal to those who are loyal in return…and this has led to some bad decisions in my life. My dog is the most loyal creature on the planet…but I’m not going to have him operate the camera for me. If you’re the creative force in the project, find the “right” person, a business person, to help. If you’re the business person, you probably already know you need to find your creative counterpart. That’s the benefit of being a business person – you’re smarter! Where it gets complicated is that creative people generally hang around creative people. The same goes for the business-minded. If you have to go outside your circle, do it. Don’t expect someone to rise to the occasion. It takes at least two at this phase to press forward.

The other key factor during development is finding your project. In most cases, the filmmaker already has a script they want to do, usually their own, which tells you they are the “creative” personality. Whether you’re taking a script already written, commissioning or writing one yourself, or seeking something to fit your needs, this is the point where the business of film comes in. Do you want film to be a career or a hobby? If you address this questions seriously, you’ll know that to make a career out of making movies, your movies have to make money. Period. If you’re fine losing your investors’ money and playing the big shot at various film festivals than you’re a hobbyist…and you need to know just how much the odds are stacked against you. L.A. is filled with hobbyists that think they’re going to be the next James Cameron. It’s the business person that knows they’re not. It’s a business person that aspires to be the next Roger Corman.

For this year’s Sundance Film Festival there were over 4000 feature submissions. 121 were selected. Before you try to convince yourself that those odds aren’t that bad, consider that most of these films won’t get distribution. Yes, that’s right – you get yourself into the most prestigious film festival in the world and you’re still unlikely to get a distributor. Now for those few films that did get (or already had) distribution, take a look at how many have A-list actors that you won’t be able to afford. Now take a few more off that list for filmmakers who have connections to the festival or were able to pull some favors to get in. If you still like your odds, it’s because you’re a hobbyist. Film festivals are, for the most part, for hobbyists. Some hobbyists get lucky, so if that’s your plan, best of luck. I have no advice to give you because film is a career for me. Maybe save ten bucks out of your budget for lottery tickets as well. But know that hobbyists almost never make a second film.

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With those hard facts in mind, you need to make a smart business decision and pick a project that has the best chance of getting distribution; a project that has the best chance of getting sold and getting your investors’ money back. That means stay away from festival-bait that is repellent to the masses. Steer clear of drama, romance, comedy and documentary. Generally speaking, people don’t want them. Distributors don’t want them. They are hard to sell. A bad sci-fi film has a better chance of making money than a good drama. Yes, there are exceptions, but they are few and far between. Kind of like getting struck by lightning. To quote an underrated classic – “What do you like? You like the odds on lightning?” If your drama has an A-lister maybe you have something there, but then you’re probably not looking to an indy guy like me for guidance if your dad is golfing buddies with George Clooney. Be smart and give yourself the best possible chance of making a film that can sell. Make an action film or a horror film. Make a fantasy or sci-fi piece. Make a family film or erotic film…or an erotic, family film for that matter…er, maybe not. These are the genres that buyers around the world want. I’ve never had a meeting with a buyer that started with “I’m looking for documentaries and romantic comedies.”

George Clooney

     So once you’ve chosen a smart genre, you need your script. Whether you’re writing it yourself, hiring someone to write it or going on a mission to find it, here are some key factors to keep in mind.

–    Number of locations and number of actors: The easiest film you can tackle is one actor in one location. Every location and every actor you add makes the project more complicated and costly. Just be aware of this.

–    Availability of locations: exotic locations can provide great production value and make your film look more expensive. Do you have any unusual locations you can get access to? If so, find a way to work them into your script. On the flip side, be aware of locations that are likely to cause trouble. If your film takes place in the White House, you’re going to need an ample budget to recreate those sets (unless your dad is golfing buddies with Barack Obama).

–    FX: good effects are another way to elevate your production value, but (generally) they are expensive. Do you have a cheap avenue for good FX? A friend with skillz (which are even more impressive then “skills” I’m told)? A family connection who will give you a discounted rate? Don’t write blindly without concern for costs.

–    Name talent: generally you’re not focusing on talent at this point with the one exception being if you have (or can get) one or more “name” actors in your project (surely your dad golfs with someone famous, right?). We’ll talk more about the value of names later, but it is considerable and the single greatest marketing element you can get. A good rule in low budget projects is that it’s cheaper to get your big star for a supporting role over a couple of days than a lead role for the duration. If you can write (or find) a good supporting role that takes place in a limited number of locations, you can get the most bang for your buck. If you already have a lead on a possible name actor for your film, offer to get their insight and input to make sure you keep them engaged.

–    Write, rewrite and get feedback…then rewrite again: this is the easiest part of the process because you’re not under the gun. When the clock officially starts, the money will begin flowing and every minute has a dollar value attached to it. Take as long as is necessary to make the script as good as possible. Make it great. Don’t let the business side take a back seat. No matter how excited you are to get to things, don’t take the position – “Let’s go into pre-production and we can work on the script as we go.” Why would you do that? Impatience is a dangerous motivator.

Once the script is great (or at least doesn’t totally suck which is my personal threshold) and your core team is assembled, it’s time to get the money to make your film. Part Three will focus on these aspects of the journey. See you next week. In the meantime – Write!  Write like the wind!

     Chris Hood is a writer, producer and director of such films as “Counterpunch” starring Danny Trejo and “Dirty Dealing 3D” with Michael Madsen and C. Thomas Howell.  He is also owner of Robin Hood Films, a Las Vegas-based distribution company representing English language films around the world and operates a film blog at MovieIndustry.com.  He’s also dead sexy.  (Mr. Hood denies any involvement in the creation of this mini-bio.)

Film Schooling, Part 1

The question I get asked most as a filmmaker is: “How do I get into the business?”  Scratch that.  Actually the question I get asked most is “Do you get to sleep with a lot of hot chicks?”  The former I’ll answer because it might actually benefit someone.  Although addressing the second may inspire, it’s never lack of inspiration that seems to be what’s missing in this business.  The enthusiasm amongst first time filmmakers is akin to childlike rapture.  After all, what can really compete?  Christmas morning excitement when you’re 10?  Nope, first time filmmaker wins.  15-year-old kid scoring a PS4?  Not even close, first time filmmaker trumps it.  Grown man from Detroit learning the Tigers are in the Super Bowl?  Nope…okay, maybe, but I think you have a better chance of winning the Sundance Film Festival than the Lions seeing a Super Bowl in this lifetime, so that’s probably not a fair analogy.

What’s so complicated about “getting into film” is that there are a dozen different definitions for what that means. If the crux of the question is actually “How do I sell my script to Spielberg?” or “How can I get my audition tape to Martin Scorsese?” or “I’ve directed four plays at my school and I think I’m ready to work for the studios. What do you suggest?” then I don’t have the answer. If someone wants to know about how to make a livable income from making movies, I can give you the tools to pursue that end. And it’s a cool place to be.

I’ve been working in the film business for over two decades now and I’ve learned a lot of what to do and what not to do. For the majority of that time, I wasn’t making a living as a filmmaker, I was doing what I had to do to pay the bills while pursuing the dream. Many more of those years were spent in unrelated fields while still following that passion in my spare time. I spent many years as a blackjack dealer at the Hard Rock Casino in Vegas, writing scripts on my breaks, waiting for something to pop. I even felt a bit on the fringe on the business when dealing to Hollywood celebrities like Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bryan Singer and Kevin Smith many of whom gave me advice while I was taking their money.

And the advice I got most often was “Just go do it.” No one starts with a big studio film. Test the waters. Get your feet wet. Show the world that you can make a film. Show the world that you can make a film that makes money and guess what? You’ll get to make another film. It’s that easy. Par it down to the most basic elements and it’s like any other business. If you make money at it, you’re a success. Lose money and you’re a failure. I’ve been on both sides and being a success is always way better…unless you’re trying to reach level 80 in World of Warcraft…for your sake and for the sake of the people who pretend to love you, I hope you fail.

We’re in a very interesting time.  There are opportunities that weren’t available even 10 years ago.  The prospect of making a film for $50,000 or even $100,000 a generation ago didn’t exist. Technology has been the greatest possible boon for the aspiring filmmaker.  My distribution company represents a few films with five-figure budgets and a couple have done quite well because they were done “right.”  A film can be shot on an $800 HD consumer camera, edited with free software and incorporate a few thousand dollars’ worth of FX and have a finished film for less than you would have had to spend buying just the raw film not that long ago.  The downside is that this means a lot of people are doing it.  The upside is that most of them are doing it wrong.  You’re not competing with the 99 guys who get it wrong, you’re just competing with the 1 who’s doing it right.  Realize that and it’s not nearly as daunting a prospect.  With some brains, some planning, some common sense and perhaps a little help from me, you can land in that 1% and start on your journey to success.

I won’t say I’ve had my “big break” yet, but I’m making and selling movies that turn a profit.  Last year I was producer on a film called Counterpunch that I sold to Lionsgate. CP_LG_poster I’m currently in post-production on a 3D film called Dirty Dealing and have still another feature shooting later this year.  I’m finally at a point where I’m writing, producing and directing films and making money at it.  These aren’t studio films and the money is good, but I’m not big time.  Medium time.  That’s where I’m hanging out.  Not living the dream exactly, but living the pre-dream.  I may not be the King, but I’m a noble landholder who can exert my evil will and oppress his serfs…  You get the idea.Dirty Dealing 3D poster

This is to be an ongoing series giving you the broad strokes of what you need to know if you’re going to venture down this road.  We’ll be tackling the entire filmmaking process and I’ll be sharing more than two decades of experience and lessons learned, in many cases the hard way.  The important thing to realize is that in this business, there are far more ways to fail than too succeed.  The cause may be something as simple as not handling money properly, not having the right team, not understanding how to market your film….or hiring Corey Feldman.

The first part of the process is “Development” and what we’ll be focusing on in Part Two.  This is the stage of making a movie when all the preliminary pieces are put together. This is also the time when you do everything you can to start gearing up before for any real money is spent and preparation is often the difference between success and failure in this business. The very first decision to make, the first question you have to ask yourself is – “What movie am I going to make?” So think about that, tuck it away, and be prepared to pull it out for the next article. So if I run in to you somewhere and ask “Is that a movie idea in your pocket or are you just happy to see me,” you’ll have the right answer.

 

     Chris Hood is a writer, producer and director of such films as “Counterpunch” starring Danny Trejo and “Dirty Dealing 3D” with Michael Madsen and C. Thomas Howell.  He is also owner of Robin Hood Films (RobinHoodFilms.com), a Las Vegas-based distribution company representing English language films around the world and operates a film blog at MovieIndustry.com.  In addition, he writes on the topic of film for the website BleedingCool.com. He’s also dead sexy.  (Mr. Hood denies any involvement in the creation of this mini-bio.)

Finding a Distributor, Part 1

I receive inquiries from filmmakers weekly and sometimes daily about Robin Hood Films handling their projects. How to get distribution for your film is one of the most difficult and daunting parts of the moviemaking process and a veritable minefield of potential missteps. The reality is that very few filmmakers get it right.

Polished-Turd

When it comes time to sell your movie, the first step is your query letter to potential distributors and sales agents.  Here are a few tips:

- Make your greeting customized. This goes a long way. Impersonal emails turns people offer whether they’re business or social. I get more than my share of emails starting “Dear Sir,” “Hello,” “Greetings,” or the worst yet – “Distributor.” There are occasions in business where this type of generic greeting is acceptable. This is not one of them. Worst case, I would expect “Dear Robin Hood Films” though it should take less than a minute on our website to find a complete staff list with all names and titles within the company. Impersonal greetings smack of laziness right out of the gate. NOT a good first impression.

- Good subject line. I’m in the distribution business.  I’m always looking for films. When I get an email about a new film, I get excited. It happens all the time, and I’m still always hopeful of finding a gem. Yes, the vast majority of them suck, but I guess I’m an optimist in this respect. I’m constantly kissing frogs waiting for the princess to appear. So, let me know in the subject line that you have a film you’re seeking distribution for. I get a little excited right away. Don’t put just the name of your company or just the name of the film. Be clever. Be creative. Get me excited! If you have a name star, let me know right away! We get a lot of emails every day. The ones that I know are filmmakers looking for a distributor get opened first.

- Keep it short. If you did the subject line correctly, you only need a few sentences in the body. If I already know you have a film, the only other essential pieces I need are a link or two and a logline or SHORT synopsis. I don’t need or want paragraphs about things that don’t really matter. Let the trailer speak for the film. Far too often I get a long synopsis and bios of cast and crew. I don’t need them. I don’t need to know where you went to film school or what other films you worked on. I don’t need to know what films you “think” your film is similar to. I certainly don’t need to know your favorite films or what big films you worked on as a production assistant or background actor. If you have marketable name talent, let me know that (especially if you didn’t tell me that in the subject line), though this is usually not the case and that’s fine. If your talent has never starred in a major film or been a lead on a TV series, I probably don’t need to know who they are. This may sound harsh, but when people cite talent with a claim to fame like “Three Episodes of Big Brother 2008″ or “Featured in CSI: Miami”, those are not name stars I can market. Don’t waste my time with it. All it tells me is that you don’t know anything about the marketing of films or the distribution process and a distributor believing that can only be a detriment to you. The fact is Adrian Paul, Corey Feldman and Ron Jeremy are not brag-worthy names. Are they better than no names at all? Maybe. I guess probably (except for Ron Jeremy) but they’re not going to help sell your film. And I mean at all. By THINKING they’re of any real value tells a distributor that you don’t know anything about the business (or just reaffirms what is almost always the case with first time filmmakers). And the sad fact is, in most cases the more naive the distributor thinks you are, the more they will try to take advantage of you. So, students, what is the proper answer to this question: “Do you have any names in the film?” A) “Yes, we have Adrian Paul, Corey Feldman and Ron Jeremy!  They all loved the script and agreed to do it at a fraction of their asking price!” or B) “No, not really, a few familiar names and faces from the 80s, but the film has great ______________”.

corey-feldman

What you MUST avoid in this miasma of selling your film is the premature query letter. If the film, trailer or reasonable marketing materials are not ready, don’t send out those emails! These are the big mistakes I see quite regularly:

- The film is not done. Big mistake. I don’t care how close it is. If I get a good inquiry and want to see the film, I want to see it now. If it’s not ready, I wonder why you’re bothering me. You don’t build a “buzz” with distributors. If I’m excited to watch your movie now, I’ll be less excited tomorrow and every day thereafter and you have to hope that I remember the film at all when you do finally get around to having a screener for me to see. If you teased me about this film a couple of months ago, it’s probably going to feel a little old. Don’t ever, EVER offer to show a potential distributor a work-in-progress. The fact is that most distributors are not filmmakers. Despite what they tell you, they are not used to seeing unfinished films. They are not going to watch your project and “picture” how much better it’s going to be when complete. And there is virtually no chance they’ll watch it again later when it is done, so don’t blow your one chance.

- The trailer is not done or of industry-standard style or duration. I recently received a link to what was called an “extended trailer”. I don’t want this.  I’m never going to use this with a buyer, so it does me no good. The fact is, even if you have a good 5 minutes, all it means is you could have a very good 2 minutes. Adding more time can only hurt.  There is a reason trailers are short. At even 5 minutes, it’s really a promo or preview and not a  trailer at all. Often in these cases, there’s little or no dialogue which is often because the final audio hasn’t been finished, so it feels even less like a trailer. Not having any dialogue is also often a trick for films not in the English language or with very heavy, hard to understand accents that the producer or distributor is trying to hide. As filmmakers we get excited about our projects and often invest many months or years and desperately want some feedback after all the time we’ve put in. Don’t do it. Make a real trailer – one to three minutes with finished dialogue, sound and music.

- No website. There is no excuse to not have a website for your company or your film in this day and age. People have websites for their cat. People have websites for someone else’s cat! You can find someone to do something like this for as little as a couple hundred dollars and it makes you appear more like a “real” filmmaker with a “real” film. It makes you look like you have at least a little business sense. Yes, I realize with micro budgets even a couple of hundred dollars is a lot of money, but this is time and money well spent.

- No poster. Now, when I say ‘no poster’ the reality is, every film that is submitted to us has a poster. But in a surprising number of cases, the poster is terrible. By terrible I don’t mean “could use some work,” I mean “terrible.” I mean if it was in my bathroom I’d be embarrassed to wipe with it. I can’t fathom how this happens. This is were the chasm between filmmaker and businessperson is most obvious.  A surprising number of the posters presented to us are shockingly bad. I often wonder if some people think the poster they have is actually good and are just clueless or just think that it “doesn’t matter” for whatever reason. The fact is that if a professional graphic artist didn’t do the poster, it sucks. Period. There is no better way to shout “I spent no money on this film!” than having an awful poster you put together yourself in Photoshop. On the other hand, there is no better way to make your film look professional on first impression than have a professional poster. Take a look at the two posters:

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Both of these films were submitted by filmmakers (I took out the name and credits on the one, but that part looked just as awful as the rest of the poster). I still shake my head when I see the poster on the left. I really don’t get it. This producer has NEVER seen a box cover this lame on a video store shelf (back when there were video stores, of course). The reality is that there are far too many filmmakers who have no grasp of business and their projects suffer and die because of it (I’m working on another article about this, so check back).

I know looking at the poster on the left that it was made by some who should never be allowed to even own a camera again (I have a lawsuit pending to that effect). I know the trailer is going to be awful and the film is going to suck. If your standards are so low that you think a poster like that is acceptable, you just know the film itself is going to be a train wreck (it was). What speaks volumes is that for both of the posters presented above, the producers claim basically the same budget.

Making a film is the second hardest thing in the world. Selling it is the first. You need to give yourself every possible advantage you can. When you consider that less than 1% of films get any real distribution, there is no room for error.

Best wishes, filmmakers.  I look forward to seeing your kick ass poster and getting blown away by your trailer.

More to come, my friends.

(In Part 2, I’m hoping to advise filmmakers on the expectation, negotiations and pitfalls of making a deal with a distributor or sales agent)

Filmmaking 101

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.

Missed opportunity.

Three years ago was a turning point in my life.  My business partner and I sold one of our domain names for our biggest sale to date.  As is usually the case in big domain deals, a non-disclosure agreement was part of the deal, so I can’t give specifics, but the purchase price was in the millions.  Now, things had been going well with the business for many years, but this cash fall was significant and unexpected, so we spent a few months deciding how best to handle it.  We’d been talking for a few years about expanding our films business and even getting into distribution, so we decided to allocate a set amount of the new found wealth for that – hence the launching of Robin Hood Films as a distributor in addition to a production company.

We also committed a nice chunk of money to in-house productions and co-productions (the Danny Trejo film, “Counterpunch” which I sold to Lionsgate was one of these).  With the new film fund, I knew I’d be doing one of my own projects, that I’d be writing and directing myself (which later became “Dirty Dealing 3D”), but I was also looking for other talents to partner with.  One of the people that came to mind was John Fiorella.  John made a fan film about 10 years ago featuring D.C. comic heroes like Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Joker and the director as Dick Grayson (aka “Robin”).  It plays like a 5-minute trailer for what would have been by all indications, an awesome film.  It’s incredibly well done and has had millions of views.  John struck as one of those talented guys who just needed to be given the chance.grayson-movie-poster-2004-1020479491

So it was around this time, with the coffers overflowing, that I called John about the idea of funding his first feature project.  It wouldn’t be anything huge, probably under $500,000, but I’d be open to anything he wanted to do as long as it was a marketable genre.  Surprisingly, the conversation didn’t last long.  It seems John was already talking to someone whom he believed was going to fund his first feature.  That being said, he didn’t want to spend much energy talking to me.  He had a bigger, better deal in the works.  Good for him.  I was looking forward to seeing it.  I really think this guy has potential.

Let’s fast forward 3 years.  I was having a discussion about superheroes (as geeks like myself are prone to do) and “Grayson” came to mind.  So I decided to see just what project(s) John had ended up making.  As of today, nothing.  No feature at all.  Nothing in “preproduction” or even “development” on IMDB.  Three years with no notable progress to report.  Who knows what happened with that other backer.  Anyone who knows the business knows that talk is cheap and most deals just don’t happen….and that’s even true on the studio level where on only 1 in 4 scripts purchased ever get into development and only 1 in 3 of those gets made.

The point of all this?  Why would someone spend all this time and money to put something so solid together and than have no follow-through?  Perhaps it’s just a lack of the most basic business acumen.  The painful truth is, I don’t care if John was 99% sure his money was coming, why would he NOT at least keep me on the line?  I don’t care if he had 5 investors all promising to give him money, keep all those lines in the water to see who is serious enough to bite first.

He and I both lost out on this deal; him more than myself.  If he doesn’t ever realize his dream, and some day he’s thinking back asking “Why didn’t I ever get my shot?  I was good!”, he’ll certainly never remember the brush off he gave me and missed opportunity I put in front of him.  On that day it’s probably better for him that he doesn’t remember our conversation at all.  But maybe others can learn from his misstep.

The Selling Game – American Film Market style

There is a sad, often unspoken, reality in the world of low-budget filmmaking…and I am aware that I now defy all expected conventions in revealing this coveted truth – your poster and your trailer are actually more important than the movie itself.

As myself and the rest of the Robin Hood Films team gears up for the upcoming American Film Market, a large portion of our energies, as expected, are being spent on putting a shine on otherwise mediocre trailers and creating new artwork and, in some cases, new titles for films that might otherwise suffer for their lack of marketability.  (For those who don’t know, The American Film Market is an annual event which takes place in Santa Monica, CA where buyers from all over the world can meet with distributors and sales agents with product to license.  Along side the big studios and notable independent labels are many smaller players in the game, such as myself.  And just like in the U.S., there are buyers for dozens of territories around the world looking for big, medium and small feature films to take to theaters, TV, DVD, VOD and any other outlet they feel they can turn a profit in their territory.  This is the biggest event of it’s kind in the Western Hemisphere.)

At the show, buyers will be inundated with hundreds of films they’ve never heard of and trying to fill a quote for their company.  This might be as simple as “1 drama, 3 horror, 3 sci-fi, 2 comedy, all $1m-$3m budgets”.  If that is their agenda, and I have a horror film available, it’s my intention to make my film more desirable than my competition.  Now, of course, I can’t compete with Lionsgate shopping around “The Cabin in the Woods”, and fortunately I don’t have to.  Anyone looking for an A-list title like that has no interest in my little zombie film.  Of course, a buyer for Germany wanting “Cabin in the Woods” might have to pay $750k for those rights (probably not the best example as the really big films will actually get released in that country by the studio or the distributor they have a relationship with…but you get the point).  A small film like “Broken Springs: Shine of the Undead Zombie Bastards” might only cost $40k for all rights in Germany.

Now, I’m not sure if you caught it since I tried to slide it past you in the previous sentence, but the title of the film is “Broken Springs: Shine of the Undead Zombie Bastards”.  Or should I say the title “was”…..

Fortunately, the filmmaker, Neeley, has proven himself a pragmatic businessperson in that he’s deferred to my suggestion/advice/genius (people always get high marks for this!) and agreed to change the title and the poster.  The previous poster falls squarely into my previously posted concerns about bad posters (see below).  It was terrible, but as is often the case, resources were limited and the team knew whoever picked up the film would rework the artwork anyway. 

So what you see here is the new poster we commissioned from a very talented artist we’re happy to have on our team.   Continue reading

Another disaster, another lesson.

It is a fascinating business we’re a part of and perhaps one of the most intriguing parts is the vast diversity among the players involved.  People of every conceivable type seem to be drawn to this business for a plethora of reasons (the main ones being money and sex…oh, yeah, and “desire for creative expression”…all three certainly interest me, but I’m pleading the 5th on the order!).   And due to the vast disparity among this motley crew, there is likewise a set of completely varying thoughts, beliefs, opinions and preconceived notions….all of which is a nice way of saying plenty of these people have their heads up their asses.

And this is the point…no scratch that, as usual I have no  point….this is the TOPIC of today’s ramblings.

I’m not sure why, but today I recalled a filmmaker I met more than 10 years ago who wanted some help with his film.  I remembered it being an odd story and felt it was worth sharing because, as is often the case, there is a lessen to be learned.

This story took place around 2000.  I know the call I received was precipitated by a showing of my first film “Impact” of which there were two Vegas showings around this time.  A local man had attended a screening of “Impact” and had a movie of his own that he wanted help with.  We talked for a bit and he invited me by.  Since these were the days before Craig’s List and I was still green and naive, it never crossed my mind that this man may have had ulterior motives like having seen me at the screening, his beautiful daughter had immediately fallen in love with me and convinced her father to kidnap and drug me until I consented to marry her and take over their estate in the South or France.   Fortunately, that was not the case and the guy was actually a filmmaker.

Continue reading