Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008: A Year in Indie Filmmaking

2008 was not a banner year for independent filmmaking. At the start, writers were on strike and producers were nervous about the future of their productions with possible DGA and SAG strikes mid-year. The writers strike ended in February but it set a tone of uncertainty for film productions throughout 2008. 

Film sales didn't have it any easier. There were positive feelings at the beginning of the year, as evidenced by this Variety article predicting a hopeful Sundance. But when the sales looked dismal after the first weekend (NYTimes Article), an underlying skepticism that had been brewing took over the scene. And when indie-darling and award-winning film "Ballast" couldn't get an acceptable distribution deal, skepticism began feeling more like panic. We wondered if we agreed with Mark Gill that the sky really was falling? What were independent filmmakers to do if they couldn't sell the films they were making?

Luckily, independent filmmakers are scrappy and used to the roller coaster ride of working outside the Hollywood system. There is an eternal optimism that independent filmmakers share, along with a fierce drive to getting their stories made and in front of an audience. If any group is going to survive, it will be independent filmmakers. So, in 2008, dinners (DIY Dinner) were had and conferences held (IFP Conference) and panels presented (DIY Filmmaking in an Indie Apocalypse) and blogs started (Truly Free Film) and projects promoted (Workbook Project) and suddenly independent filmmakers began seeing a future again. May this future be bright in 2009!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Film Investment Raising Web Sites

I had a comment on my last blog entry about Film Investors stating that Web sites like IndieGoGo are helping filmmakers to take the reins of building the financing for their films in small chunks from large groups of people. I am aware of this concept and have seriously considered it for my own projects but have never attempted it -- it always seemed like it would be difficult to raise a substantial amount of financing this way. 

I haven't personally encountered a filmmaker who has successfully raised enough funding this way to make their film. I would love to hear from any filmmakers who have been successful doing this. 

I know other sites exist as well and I found an April 25, 2008 blog entry from Scott Kirsner's Cinematech blog describing a couple:

1. IndieGoGo

In its first few months of operation, IndieGoGo has helped two films raise $10,000 each; in neither case was the $10,000 the film’s complete budget, but rather a “first round” of funding. Financial contributors may be rewarded with invites to wrap parties, DVD copies of the film, film credits, or signed memorabilia. Creating a project profile for a film is free, but once the financial goal is reached, IndieGoGo takes a nine percent cut. Filmmakers can post any material they like – some, like a budget or script, may be password-protected in a private area for certain potential contributors. Non-profit enterprises can use IndieGoGo to solicit tax-deductible donations, too.

2. ArtistShare

Used so far mostly by musicians, ArtistShare is allowing at least one filmmaker, Paul Devlin, to raise money on the site for his “science-adventure” doc ‘Blast.’ Donors can pre-purchase the DVD ($49.99) or, for $150,000 go out to dinner with the filmmaker and star of the movie, get a personal lecture from the star, and be listed as an Executive Producer. ArtistShare charges a set-up fee for all accounts, plus a monthly fee, in order to be able to raise funds through the site. Unclear how open they are to helping other film/video projects raise money. Rick Moranis has used ArtistShare, as have jazz guitarist Jim Hall, Phish co-founder Trey Anastasio, and Maria Schneider, who won a Grammy this year for “Best Instrumental Composition.”

Scott also mentioned Indieshares. This site looks interesting as well. Screenwriters upload their scripts, which then go through a "proprietary" review process. Three screenplays are chosen from this pool to be optioned. At this point, information on each, including synopses, pages from the scripts and bios of the filmmakers, are made available to the masses, who then vote on the story they like best. A company is then created for the production of the screenplay with the most votes. Shares are then offered through a registered public offering at a minimum price of $10 and a maximum of $2500 each. For more on their system, check out their FAQ page. It seems like an overly complicated screenwriting contest but if it gets a quality film made then great!

Another site that I have considered using is Fundable. This Web site provides the means to build a sum of money for a specific cause, and, yes, the cause can be a film. All you have to do is list the amount of money you are seeking and if enough people contribute in order to meet your goal then you will be cut a check or sent money via PayPal for that amount of money (minus a 10% fee). If, however, you can't get enough funds raised to meet your goal then you either have to lower the amount you are seeking or none of the money will be collected from those who pledged funds. 

And, last but not least, some filmmakers start their own Web sites in order to raise financing for specific projects. Perhaps they offer swag in exchange for a certain amount that allows them to build a budget. A $10 T-shirt can be sold for $50 and now you have $40 for your film. There are endless ideas for building financing for films. Web sites can be a useful tool in your financing strategy.




Monday, December 29, 2008

Film Investors: The Unsung Angels

Where would independent film be without investors willing to take a risk on talent who dare to work outside the Hollywood system? Independent film investors provide the means to get independent voices to the big screen. Without these Angel Investors, we would have missed out on so many wonderful films and filmmakers. What if the Coen Brothers hadn't found the group of dentists and doctors to back Blood Simple? Would they have made it far enough to get to their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men?

Filmmaking takes money and it can take many years, mixed with blood, sweat and tears to find it. When that investor comes along and says he or she wants to invest in your film, they have decided to single you out as the creative entity to support. You've worked hard. You deserve this opportunity. And you will take great care of this financing and make the best film possible. At the same time, the investor worked hard for his or her money and it's a big decision for him or her to take a substantial sum of money and put it in a high risk endeavor. And this decision is often unsung. 

Film investors are a rare breed willing to shirk all financial and legal advice and take the leap of putting some of their money in film. Ask any lawyer or accountant if they think films are a solid investment vehicle. I can guarantee they will all say no and if they say yes, they are lying and probably have a film they want you to invest in.

So why would a wealthy person with so many other, probably safer, investment vehicles decide to invest in your risky endeavor of a film? Besides being angels, they have an inner desire to be part of a film. Just as filmmakers have a desire to work in the industry, film investors have a desire to part of the process. Maybe it's to support a friend or family member or maybe they want to dabble in a new investing arena and see how it goes. Or maybe they love movies and want to be part of that world. Sure, the hope is there that the film will be successful and they will reap great monetary rewards, but because film investing is so risky, it usually takes a more personal reason for the investor to commit to backing a film project. No matter the reason, they are taking a great risk with their money in order to help make a filmmaker's dream become a reality. And that is truly angelic.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Production Insurance

Every film production must have production insurance unless you own all of your own equipment and locations, work with nonunion cast and crew, and you are wealthy enough to afford any insurance claims against your production. And if you are that wealthy (because insurance claims on a film production can be very high) then you should have no problem paying for the production insurance. Consider it an expense that you must make.

I know from experience that even the most well-intentioned film crew can cause damage to locations or vehicles that can result in thousands of dollars of repairs. I shot in one location for a fee of $1k for 10 days. It was an incredible deal. We were extremely careful during the shoot. We put down the proper floor coverings, moved furniture carefully when necessary, etc. But, in the end, the production had an insurance claim filed against it for $10k in repairs. Needless to say this location's owner was very particular (a bit OCD even), but we had to pay it. Our deductible was $3k. So in the end, the location cost us $4k, which was still a great deal for a beautiful home in Marina Del Rey. And I shudder to think of the expense of paying for any medical bills due to injuries resulting from your set. All it takes is someone tripping over a piece of equipment on your set for a major medical insurance claim to be filed against your production. I worked on a major film production that had a freak accident in which a transpo driver was bouncing a golf ball on the sidewalk. The ball hit a crack and flew off to hit a woman in the face. A medical claim was filed and the production had to cover all her dental expenses.

Production insurance does come with a hefty price tag. It can fluctuate due to what kind and how much coverage you need. Typical production insurance policies can include General Liability, Third Party Property Damage, Equipment, Props, Sets, and Wardrobe, Vehicle, Cast, Negative Film or Videotape, and Workers Compensation insurance and more. For a $1 million film, it can hover around $20k for a year for a relatively complete policy. For a micro-budget film, you are lucky to get a plan that comes in around $5k -- and that is usually a short-term production plan for two to three months at the most, just enough time to get you through a short pre-production and production. From there, you can try to purchase another short term policy to cover any post-production needs. I have even purchased low-cost equipment insurance (a few hundred dollars) in order to rent equipment, like tape decks for transfers, during post production, etc.

I usually purchase production insurance once the film production is ready to start hiring cast and crew and needs to lock in equipment, typically at the start of pre-production. Camera houses and grip and electric vendors won't even allow their equipment off their property without being added to the production's insurance policy with the General Liability set at a certain level. When considering your policy, call the vendors and ask what insurance they require and how much their equipment is worth. This will give you an idea of how much General Liability and equipment insurance you will need. And be sure to check in with the insurance provider on what their policy covers. Most will not cover your personally owned vehicles or locations. And yes, I have story about how a producer (not me) used her own home for the location. The hot lights set off her sprinkler system in her building. She faced $30k in repairs and no insurance coverage since the policy wouldn't cover personally owned locations.

Hopefully, your production will sail through with no insurance claims. But if you get one, at least you will have help covering the bill.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Film Production and Weather

The weather outside is frightful but we have a movie to make! Unless you're incredibly lucky, every film production has to deal with crazy weather days, i.e. high winds, rain, intense heat or cold, etc. You need to be prepared to keep on filming despite nature's rebellion.

Each day the weather should be monitored by a film production. There are companies that offer up-to-the-minute weather reports for a fee, such as CompuWeather. On a micro-budget film, you may only be able to afford to use a free weather tracking service on the Web. These free services are okay but if you are working on a film with a large budget, you are best working with a service that can provide more detailed weather reports. No matter how you get your weather, you need to be aware of it and plan for how to deal with it so you don't lose too much shooting time.

Most productions can keep on filming during poor weather conditions. If it's sprinkling, just pull out the rain gear for both crew and equipment and keep on filming. Put a canopy over your actors so their hair and clothes do not get wet. One consideration with filming in the rain is that your production sound will probably be unusable (the rain will be heard beating down on the tarp protecting the actors). But having to re-record those scenes in post production is usually much less costly than not filming. Please note: Never film in lightening. People and copious amounts of metal equipment make great lightening rods. And for obvious reasons, filming in high winds is not practical. A breeze is fine if you weigh down your equipment but unless you want to worry about injuries to your cast or crew, running after your fly-away props, blown over equipment, and wind noise then you are best waiting out the wind storm or moving to another set.

If it's hot, make sure there are cool areas for the cast and crew to have a break from the heat. An air conditioned area is ideal plus tents, i.e. E-Z Ups, for shade. And provide lots of water. If you have a larger budget, you may even want to rent or buy a few misters so everyone can periodically get cooled off by the mist. If it's cold, rent or buy some space heaters and set them up so people can stand in front of them to warm up periodically. You can even provide hand and toe warmers. It's also wise to have a heated room available and extra hats and gloves on hand.

If it looks like the weather may ruin the shot that is planned, a cover set should be considered and simultaneously planned for so that at a moment's notice, the entire production can be switched to the cover set. Having a cover set can sound like a lot of extra work. Why not just cancel the shoot for that day? It can be extremely costly to cancel a day of filming. Each day film productions are burning through their budget with equipment and location rentals, insurance, and crew and cast salaries. In addition, the schedule is like dominoes -- you make one small move and if you aren't careful, the entire thing can fall apart.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Need a Producer?

As a writer and/or director, you will eventually need to find a producer for your project. This is an important search as a good producer will mean a smooth shoot, top crew, and strong positioning for your film. Even if it's a micro-budget film, a good producer will do the best job one can do with limited resources.

Before reaching out to producers, you need to assess what kind of film and budget you will be seeking. At this stage, you need to try to be as realistic as possible, while not selling your project short. You won't get very far by approaching a top Hollywood producer who has a studio deal with your $1 million film. Producers with studio deals are seeking projects that will fulfill their studio deals, with budgets more in the $20 to $100 million range -- give or take. In those rare cases that a top Hollywood producer takes on a small film, they are usually supporting a certain person in the production or they were introduced to it by a trusted colleague in the industry. If you have these kind of connections then certainly leverage them. If you don't, you are usually better off approaching producers known for working on films similar to the one you are trying to get made. 

At the same time, you don't want to aim too low when looking for a producer. It can seem like the path of least resistance to attach an inexperienced friend or family member as producer. However, your film will suffer without having a person experienced in filmmaking at the helm. In the event you can't find an experienced producer to consider your film, there are many wonderful production coordinators, production managers or line producers looking to make the leap to producer. The inexperienced friend or family member should be your last resort. And if you are at this last resort, perhaps you need to assess the quality of your film before moving forward. You may need more time at the drawing board, developing the project. 

Once you know the genre and budget of your film, do some research into similar films and note who produced the project. This is a great start to your list of producers to approach. Don't stop there. Do some research into the actors you want to work with. See if they have starred in any low budget films recently. You may find more up-and-coming producers who haven't had a release in the theaters or video stores yet. But they have successfully made features with the actors  you want for your film. And ask around. Referrals are a wonderful, often the only successful, way to find a producer. Remember that even small producers are bombarded with projects and referrals help projects to leap to the top of the pile.  

With your list of producers, start reaching out. Send email pitches or call and pitch your story over the phone. Never send the script without permission. Besides the liability concerns it poses for the producer (he or she may have a similar project and you may decide the idea in the script you sent over was stolen), it also shows your inexperience and that is not how you want to be perceived. When calling, start with the development executive or assistant, unless the producer works solo. The development executive or assistant has the producer's ear and your project will make it to him or her if it is right for that producer. And keep the faith. You will eventually find your producer and when you do, it will be one of the most fulfilling relationships you build on your production -- one that could truly last a lifetime. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Film Deferrals

Deferrals are an essential part of independent filmmaking. Independent films are usually cash poor so any opportunity to broker a deal in which cast or crew or a vendor defers out all or part of their pay is a blessing. In a deferral deal, cast or crew or a vendor agrees to defer all or part of their pay until the production has the money to pay them or the film sells. 

There are any number of reasons why cast or crew members or vendors would agree to defer their pay. Perhaps the cast or crew are friends with the filmmakers and they want to help the production be a success. The philosophy of "my success is your success" is alive and well in indie filmmaking. I absolutely remember everyone who has helped me along the way, and I have every intention of rewarding their support with paid gigs or referrals to other opportunities in the industry. Or maybe they will need my help on one of their future productions. There is a lot of stiff competition in Hollywood and deferral jobs can help cast or crew members or companies meet new people who may one day bring them the opportunities they are seeking. 

There may also be incentives linked to a deferral deal that the cast, crew or vendors find appealing. Perhaps a piece of the back end profits are given in exchange for deferring pay. Or maybe the total amount paid will be higher in a deferral deal than if they were paid during the job. For example, Joe may get paid $500 a week during the job, but if he were to agree to a deferral deal, perhaps he is paid $300 a week and then an additional $700 a week is deferred out. In the deferral deal, Joe can make twice the amount of money -- assuming the film sells. It's a gamble on Joe's part but maybe he likes gambling for the opportunity to earn twice the amount! 

Producers may also use deferral deals to help garner higher quality crew. Perhaps the pay they can afford to offer is low for the caliber of crew they are seeking. The producer may decide to sweeten the deal for crew by offering a deferred bonus in the hopes the more experienced crew will be willing to work for slightly less pay if they know they will get a bonus down the road. 

Oftentimes, deferrals can make up the largest portion of a film's budget. Crew pay on a small budget can easily be $100k, so it's important to a micro-budget to defer out as much as possible. Also, vendors can bring extremely costly services, like equipment, catering, film developing, or color correction for deferred payment. It's not easy finding vendors willing to do a deferral deal but it's not impossible. I have successfully negotiated deferral deals with vendors. It just takes time and patience but it can be done. In fact, much of my time is spent creating relationships with crew and vendors who are open to deferral deals. I couldn't get my films made as well -- or at all -- without them. 



Monday, December 22, 2008

Selling Your Film

Selling independent films is a very hot topic right now in the indie film industry. Filmmakers are struggling to get any decent offers for their films and are being forced to seriously consider Do-It-Yourself distribution models. Even playing at top film festivals isn't helping their cause as much as it once did. Though the festivals are still an important part of securing a top sales agent and interest from distributors. 

Each year thousands of independent films are made and are submitted to the same top sales agents, festivals, and distributors. It's inevitable that some will be the chosen few who get the premiere launch with the best agents and festival slots, and the others will find themselves floundering on their own, trying to figure out how to navigate the world of sales. If the latter happens to you, don't despair. You are not alone. 

Most of us chose the career of being an independent filmmaker because we had stories to tell and we wanted to tell them on our own terms. Along with this independence comes the responsibility to figure out how to get our films in front of an audience. It can be demoralizing though to get rejection after rejection from festivals, sales agents and distributors. You have to be able to deal with the rejection and keep fighting for your film to be released. Without your conviction, your film will go unnoticed. 

So take that passion that started you on the road to telling your story and use that positive energy to help sell the film. It's going to be hard to not let the rejections take the wind out of your sails but you must hang in there. Eventually, you will find a home for your film, even if it means offering the film for sale yourself off a Web site that you create. And perhaps this heartwrenching experience will allow you to learn how to make your next film more sales friendly or you will have built an audience yourself that you can continue to serve with stories that you want to tell.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Calm in the Storm

It's the producer's job to be the calm in the storm at every phase of a film's creation. Anxiety and stress is running very high during the making of a film. This really comes into play during film production. Investors are concerned about how their money is being used, agents are worried about how their actors are being handled, line producers are thinking about how to stay on budget, production managers are worried about hiring the right crew and negotiating the best deals, directors are trying to figure out how to achieve their visions with limited resources, etc. And all of these people turn to the producer for answers and guidance. 

A producer can easily become overwhelmed by the amount of issues to deal with. And each issue is important to the person posing it. So a producer needs to figure out a system for addressing everyone's problems, yet at the same time, prioritizing them so they aren't quickly suffocated by them. This system develops from real work experience, figuring out what works and what doesn't through addressing problems on each production and consulting with mentors, and building a team around you that you trust to help with any problems that occur. 

In general, you, as a producer, need to be concerned with the big picture. Let your production leaders do the lion's share of worrying about the smaller picture. You should consult with each department regularly and get overall assessments on how the department is doing. If all seems to be going well then continue to trust that you have hired a competent department head who can handle any issues that develop within his or her team. Micro-managing is death to you and your production. And, believe me, any unresolved or festering problems will make their way to your door eventually.

When you are consulted and I promise you will be on a daily, even minute to minute basis, you need to figure out a way to provide solutions quickly and effectively and calmly. The people coming to you for guidance are already stressed out and anxious. They need you to be the strong, calm one in the crisis. At the same time, they need to be reassured that they have the means to handle the problem themselves. If they feel confident in their choices, and much of that confidence comes from a producer's validation and trust, then they will perform at the highest level for you and need to bog you down less with issues. Being calm doesn't mean you have all the answers all the time, it just means you are confident you will be able to find those answers that allow you to keep the project moving forward despite any obstacles that come your way. 




Saturday, December 20, 2008

Reading Scripts

Reading scripts is a large part of my job as a producer. It's always a joy to come across a really well written script that speaks to my sensibility as a storyteller. It's rare but when it happens, I realize again why I decided to be a filmmaker. Good stories make me feel happy, excited, and positive. Who doesn't want to feel that way all the time?

You don't have to be a master screenwriter or top director or producer to know you are reading a good script. A good script should be a page turner. You should feel compelled to want to keep reading more when you reach the end of a page. As you are reading the script, actual scenes should start playing out in your head. You are seeing the film, not just reading it. If this happens, it is a strong clue you are reading something that is well written.

However, every well written script won't speak to everyone. I have read many that are award-winning that I felt weren't my cup of tea. That doesn't mean they are bad. It just means that they aren't my taste. Sometimes it can be hard to discern between a bad script and one that just doesn't speak to you. This is where having a firm grasp on script structure can really help as you assess the strengths of a script -- read up on script structure, take classes, watch a ton of movies and read the scripts of the movies you like. 

I won't lie, reading scripts can be a chore at times. There are many more bad scripts than there are good ones. Because there are so many scripts available and not enough time to read them all, it is a reality that development executives use time-saving means for getting through mountains of scripts each week. I hate to say it but there is a 30-10 rule. Read the first 30 pages and the last 10. And there is also the "only read the dialogue" way of reading a script. If the script is really bad it's hard to get past page 3 and yes, I have passed on scripts from reading only 3 pages. I know that may sound insane but because I have so many other scripts to consider, I would rather not waste my time on a script that has tortured me for 3 pages. Don't worry, a script has to be really bad for me to pass after 3 pages. Really bad.

I am sure screenwriters are cringing as they read this. They want to believe that their scripts are being read from beginning to end and that the readers are savoring every word. And that can be a reality if you have crafted a really good script. So hopefully knowing there is a lot of stiff competition out there, screenwriters will feel compelled to make sure their script is so good that an exec will keep reading the entire script. Keep those pages turning so fast that before an exec even thinks about using the 30-10 rule, he or she has already finished reading the entire script!






Friday, December 19, 2008

Happy Holidays!

Today is the official day that Hollywood shuts down for two weeks. Nothing gets done on this day. So in that spirit, I will just say, Seasons Greetings and have fun!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Finding Investors

There is no magic formula to finding money for an independent film. Even the established financiers look to wealthy individuals or companies to open up their pocketbooks and back their movies. For every film being made, someone had to pitch a money source in order to secure the financing. This idea of having to go out and hit up people for money can make even the most outgoing individual weak in the knees. I won't sugarcoat it. It's not easy and a lot has to do with finding the right investor at the right time. And it means hitting up a lot of dead ends before finding an interested party.

Your passion for your film being made will help carry you through the process. You need to feel so compelled about getting your film made that you ignore your weak knees and approach those wealthy people that you feel should be able and open to investing in your film. You may be saying to yourself, I don't know any wealthy people. That may be true, but you may have some friends or friends of friends who do. Don't be afraid to ask around. And don't be afraid to mention you are a filmmaker when you meet a wealthy person and let them know you are always looking for investors for your projects. You never know when or where you will find a lead to an investor interested in movies. 

To date, every film that I have produced has been backed by private equity. Sure, I hit up all of the established studios, mini-majors and financiers at the same time. However, I have been able to find the private money to back the film before finding studio funds. I decided I wasn't willing to let my fate be in the hands of the film companies that have thousands of projects banging down their doors. I decided it was worth it to me to go out of my comfort zone and approach wealthy individuals for my production budgets. That's not to say I wouldn't welcome the day a studio called and gave me a greenlight. In fact, I pray for that day. But until that day comes, I will keep on sussing out and approaching people with money.

My advice to a filmmaker thinking of approaching private investors with their film would be to start small. You may even want to do a short film first. Then make a film for less than $100k. Then one for less than a million. Work your way up to the million plus budgets over time. This way you will have the experience that will help you to ensure your investors make their money back. One of the biggest problems we are seeing in independent film is that billions of dollars are being used to make films each year and a large chunk of these investment dollars are not being made back. That means this industry is losing millions each year. And how can we sustain a thriving independent film industry when the amount of money being gained by the industry pales in comparison to the amount being lost?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Finding Projects

As a producer, I constantly have my eyes and ears open to new ideas for films. I find myself hearing or reading stories and thinking, hmm, that could make a good movie. As I come across these ideas, I let them ruminate for a bit. I write them down and stick them in a computer file marked Movie Ideas and if the idea sticks with me, I may decide to pursue it a little more. I may even write up an outline for it and then run it by a few other people. See if it sparks their interest. If it seems to garner enthusiastic responses from others then I feel I am on to something. From there, I actively devise a plan for finding a writer or director for the project. 

Taking on a new project is an involved process. As I have already mentioned in previous posts, it can take years to get a project off the ground. I have found that I need to LOVE an idea and basically be obsessed by it needing to be told cinematically in order to passionately pursue it, day in, day out for a decade. When I first started out as a producer, I was a like a puppy at a dog run -- you'd find me running around, sniffing out every story and piece of talent I could find, pouncing on anything that seemed like a fun, exciting idea, and without much regard for protocol, approaching seasoned film professionals with my excitement. It got me noticed but over time, my style has changed from being the hyper newbie to a being a more skilled and confident storyteller and letting the story, not my excitement, drive the evolution of the film.

Nowadays, I am very discerning about the projects I take on and I put much more thought into whether or not an idea seems sellable and marketable. Often we filmmakers can get caught up in a really cool idea but if we had just taken the time to step back and really figure out who the audience would be, we would see that we were creating a film for a really tiny niche. And I hate to say it because I love the excitement and passion behind a filmmaker's journey but some stories are better off dreaming about than being put on screen. I don't think I'm selling out when I say that it's important to think about getting a return on your investor's money as you are telling your story. 

I realize that my exuberance in the early days kept me moving toward my goal of producing but it's the experience and taking the time to really evaluate the value of an idea that will result in success as a producer. 


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Revolutionary Road World Premiere

I went to the World Premiere of Revolutionary Road last night in Los Angeles. I really enjoy attending World Premieres. The audience is buzzing with excitement and you get to see the stars up close and personal, which is always fun. And I love to see the Hollywood publicity machine working at full tilt. 

The best part of the night was that I really enjoyed this film. It's based on a book of the same name by Richard Yates that was written in the 1960s. Sam Mendes directed. I am a fan of Mr. Mendes, who also directed the critically acclaimed American Beauty -- the floating plastic bag moment is infamous (so simple yet said so much) -- and Road to Perdition. As Mendes opened the film, he actually pointed out that it took 40 years for the book to be made into a feature. Now that is a long development period! Seven years, which is the average time for a film to be made, doesn't sound so bad anymore.  

It's films like Revolutionary Road that inspire me to keep working as a producer. I am drawn to character-driven films and I absolutely adore good dialogue. I get goose bumps thinking of brilliantly written cinematic moments. I have even created another blog in which I am pulling in the scenes from movies and books that give me that goose bump moment. Check it out: http://romancingthestory.blogspot.com. 

I'm most excited when I am completely riveted by a scene in which all the characters are doing is talking. To me, this is the sign of a great film and a gifted writer. To have the ability to write dialogue that has you hanging on the edge of your seat is so incredibly hard. And then to be able to direct the scene and act it out in such a simple and elegant way so that the dialogue is the main focus of the scene, well, then, you've got me at hello. 


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Racing to Submit to Festivals

I was at a racing event today at the California Speedway and it reminded me of the racing that is done by filmmakers to get their films finished and off to festivals for consideration. In fact, many filmmakers time the completion of their post production by the deadline for a festival, often Sundance. "We're aiming for the Sundance deadline" is a popular mantra in the indie film industry. 

This type of thinking is a double-edged sword. It's great to have a deadline as it will keep you working hard toward finishing the film, especially when you don't have a distributor breathing down your neck to finish. It's also great to incentivize your cast, crew and vendors to work quickly as they would like to see their efforts on the big screen at a famous festival too. 

However, there are real downsides toward making a festival submission deadline the completion date for your film. You may end up compromising the quality of your film by racing through important steps in order to finish, or you may turn in a version of your film before it's really ready to be considered by a programmer. In both scenarios, you are not putting the film and its needs first. And it will be apparent to those who are assessing your film for their festival.

It is true that most festivals accept rough cuts but filmmakers should look at this as a viable option if the film is very close to completion. If you know your final version is not going to vary much from the rough cut then you are probably fine submitting it. Perhaps you are only finishing up the color correction or minor visual effects. In many cases, you are fine submitting before a final sound mix is completed but only if your production sound is decent. If the sound is horrendous and causing major wincing throughout then you are best not submitting your film before a sound mix occurs. Sometimes, festivals will allow you to swap out a better, more complete version of the film within 2 to 4 weeks of submitting it but don't count on it. It's up to the programmer and he or she may say no.

Bottomline, if you are finding yourself having to seriously compromise the quality of your film for a festival deadline then it's best to forego the submission to that particular festival. There are top-tiered festivals that occur throughout the year. It's best to preserve the quality of the film and your reputation as a filmmaker than to race to try to make a festival deadline. 


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Credits

There is a whole hierarchy that exists when crediting people who work on films and television. There is the main title sequence that contains all of the producers, actors and department heads. This can be found at either the front of the film or the back of the film, just before the end credits. Within the main title sequence there is a typical order:

Actors
Casting Director
Music Supervisor
Composer
Editor
Costume Designer
Production Designer
Director of Photography
Executive Producer
Producer
Writer
Director

Agents can negotiate where their actor clients names are listed. They will always want their clients to have a single card, which means only one actor name appears on screen at a time. However, if all the actors had single cards, the credits would roll forever and it would no longer be deemed a strong negotiating point. So only the principal actors with the largest parts will be considered for single cards. Others will share a card or be listed in the end credit roll only. 

Actors also want to know what position they will be in. The lead actor will be in first position, have a single card, in the same size, type and duration as the others, and he or she will be listed in "above the title" position on the film, poster and any other advertising should any actors be listed "above the title". This means his or her name will be listed before the title of the film should the studio or producers decide to list actors before the title. This happens a lot when you have big name actors that can help drive an audience to the theater. The producer or studio is the one handling these negotiations and you usually find out pretty quickly what an actor expects as far as position. The agent and producer or studio will work together to figure out the appropriate position for the actor and the other department heads and producers. Sometimes it's best to list the actors in alphabetical order or in order of appearance if the roles are very similar to one another and the actors are of equal weight.

As for end credits, producers spend a great deal of time compiling the end credits. They need to make sure each department is accounted for and that each individual is accurately credited and his or her name is spelled correctly. That may seem like a minor point but when you have to credit two to three hundred people, it can become a real challenge. That's why I always put a line in every crew deal memo that says: How do you want your name listed in the credits? This way I can consult with everyone's deal at the time I am compiling the credits to ensure we have everyone's name and spelling correct. Every person on a film works extremely hard. It's only right to make sure they are credited appropriately. 

In the end credits, actors are listed first and this is where all of the principal actors (the lead actors), day players (actors who had small parts and only worked a few days or less on the film), and the extras (actors without lines) are listed. From there, each department is listed with the names of the crew who worked in the department. Following the departments, you will find the music credits and then usually a Special Thanks section where the producer likes to list anyone who helped the project but didn't work in a specific department. I usually put investors, vendors who went above and beyond, and friends and family in this section -- because let's face it, friends and family have to put up with a lot from their filmmaker-loved ones. After the special thanks, most vendors are listed and at the very end, you will find logos from the main vendors and legal disclaimers and copyright information.

Credits are a tedious but very necessary part of a film. They are held dear to those who worked on the project. Most filmmakers, including cast and crew, are fueled by an inner passion for movies (it's not always the money!) and they usually give of themselves far above what return they may receive. And the best way to make someone feel good about their contribution is to accurately credit them for their hard work. 

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Black List

Each year development executives vote on the best, or as the person who puts the list together says, "most liked," scripts of the year. It is an informal list that has gained popularity through the years as executives like to know what scripts are the most liked by everyone who is successfully getting films made in the Hollywood system. The list of scripts are then put together in one document under the title "The Black List." 

Here is the introduction to the list:

THE BLACK LISTwas compiled from the suggestions of over 250 film executives, each of whom 

contributed the names of up to ten of their favorite scripts that were written in, or are 

somehow uniquely associated with, 2008 and will not be released in theaters during this 

calendar year. 

This year, scripts had to receive at least four mentions to be included on THE BLACK LIST. 

All reasonable effort has been made to confirm the information contained herein.  THE BLACK 

LISTapologizes for all misspellings, misattributions, incorrect representation 

identification, and questionable “2008”affiliations. 

It has been said many times, but it’s worth repeating: 

THE BLACK LISTis nota “best of”list.  It is, at best, a “most liked”list. 


It sounds very secretive and I suppose it can be deemed as coveted by those in the know. Development executives want to know that they have read everything that is considered good. They aspire to have an encyclopedic knowledge of writers and directors. This list can reinforce or introduce scripts and writers that the executives should be reading and meeting and working with. I am always intrigued by it each time it is released. I find myself absorbed by this list of scripts that have stood out amongst the thousands that are completed and floated around Hollywood each year. 

What I find most interesting is a large number of the scripts are written by lesser known writers. As an indie filmmaker, I find this list even more enticing as I would actually have a chance of someday working with the writers on the list. But then again, now that they are on the Black List...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Casting High or Low

I am working on a film for which we have our lead actor but I'm trying to figure out if I should cast a big name in the costarring role or go for someone with real acting chops and no name value to the box office. Most people would say, go for the big name. The problem with that approach is access and time. Unless you have a big budget to pay your actors and the money is in the bank, it is very difficult to get a big name actor to consider your tiny film. If they do consider it without a monetary offer, it will most certainly take months for your script to work its way to the top of the pile of offers that have "real" monetary offers attached to them. So be prepared to wait a long time for an answer that may never come.

It's frustrating but it just makes sense that the big name actors are hard to get. They mean something to the box office so every producer in town is bringing them their projects. So how do you get yours to stand out? First off, you need to have an amazing script with an incredible role for the actor to consider. The studios have a lot of product that have strong pay days attached, but over time, an actor may want to carve out time in his or her schedule to take on a passion project. So you may find a bigger actor taking interest in your project if the role is something they feel they really must do. 

You will also need to be able to provide some assurances to the actor's agent and manager that you will make this film and pay their actor. Often it's a strong reputation for making good projects and treating the actors appropriately. However, many independent producers do not have a strong track record yet. What kind of assurances can you provide? The best assurance is a pay or play offer in which you agree to either pay the actor or play the actor by a certain date. This makes the reps feel very comfortable that their client will get something from this project should it never garner the financing. 

But you may not want to be on the hook for a large amount of cash because you aren't certain you can get the money in time. So you need to rely on your relationships with the agents and managers. With a good relationship, you may get them to read it and feel it is strong enough to give to their client without an offer. If you don't have the relationships yet, you can also hire a casting director to make offers on your behalf. Some may even cast on a deferred basis in order to secure an executive producer credit. Remember our discussion on leverage? You should be leveraging any of your relationships that can help you to get the script in front of the actor you want. 

In the end, however, you may be stonewalled and never get your project in front of the actor you feel is perfect for the role. This can happen if the agent or manager doesn't feel the project is right for their client. Or perhaps they don't have faith in you because you have no resume for getting films made. It's important to know and understand that it can make the agent or manager look bad if they are submitting projects to their clients that never get set up. 

So now you may understand why a producer may decide to forego the challenges of securing a big name actor. He or she may decide it's better to cast someone who can make the role really stand out for their acting and not their name. More often than not this decision will affect securing the financing for the film so you will want to make sure you can get the film made on a small budget. And honestly, some films are best made small. Can you imagine what Napoleon Dynamite would have looked like with a $20 million budget and big name actors? Much of its charm was due to its low budget pedigree and no name, excellent cast. And who wouldn't want a Napoleon Dynamite on their resume?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Leverage

I am thinking about leverage today. I watched the premiere of the new TNT TV show Leverage last night. (I enjoyed it!) It stars one of the actors, Christian Kane, from a film I produced last year (Not Since You). Christian is a very talented actor and musician, and all around good person. As soon as I heard about the show, I knew I would have another TV show to add to my DVR. One thing I love to do is support those who have been part of the projects I have produced. I am watching Dexter as well because Desmond Harrington stars in it and he was also in Not Since You. 

What does this have to do with leverage? A lot. Films are built on leveraging relationships. The "I'll scratch your back, if you'll scratch mine" mentality runs this town. So when Christian and Desmond agreed to be part of Not Since You, I was agreeing to support them the rest of their careers as well. I got two wonderful actors in our film, but they also got two great roles, lifelong fans and support for the future -- and hopefully more work -- from my company. 

Leverage is very similar to bartering. You may have something of value that another vendor or piece of talent would like to have. Maybe a vendor or an actor is looking to get producing credits in order to increase their visibility. In turn, you need your post production handled or an actor to work on a deferred basis because you are out of cash. Both sides are then using what they have of value in order to leverage the ideal outcome for each. You can offer a producing credit and they can offer their services. It's a win-win leverage.

Some leverages can also feel more negative than positive. The one who gains the most in a leverage is usually the side that doesn't "need" the outcome as badly. For example, if you need a certain actor more than the actor needs your film, you may find yourself being leveraged to give more money or perks because you need that actor very badly in order to trigger the financing, etc. These instances of leverage can sting a bit but in the end, you are gaining the thing that is getting your film made. It's just a higher cost leverage than you had hoped.

Leverage is a very useful tool. You may win large by strongly leveraging your value on one deal but then find you are being leveraged heavily in a way you don't like on another deal. The good and the bad are a package deal when it comes to leverage. Hopefully, you will come to respect the power of leveraging and use it to your greatest advantage and success. 




Sunday, December 7, 2008

Being Independent

Being independent means calling your own shots on how you want your career to be. It also means a huge responsibility for figuring out and executing the career you want. When I became an independent producer, I knew in my gut that I wanted to develop my own stories and accept the responsibility for heading the team that brings the stories to the big screen. I greatly enjoy finding stories and having the ability to develop them into something about which I feel really excited and then finding the creative teams that will work together to make the films. 

But working with other producers can be just as rewarding. You can help support or share the producing responsibilities on a film and may even find that it fits your personality better. Even though I work independently, I have a few projects on which I am partnering with other producers. On those projects, I find it really great (often relieving) to be able to run things by another person and be able to shoulder the millions of tasks that a producer does for each project. Being independent doesn't have to mean doing it alone. 

 


Saturday, December 6, 2008

Tennessee

I'm sorry I missed blogging yesterday. I am helping out still photographer and filmmaker Patrick Hoelck right now. He is preparing for a studio sale of his prints, which has me organizing thousands of his images at the moment. I really love his work. He uses rich greens and blues, which gives his work a unique quality. Check it out at www.patrickhoelck.com. If you are interested in his work and you live in LA, let me know. I can send you information on the sale. He also shot his first independent film this year as well. Scott Caan wrote and starred in it. I am excited for Patrick's foray into filmmaking. I am certain he will be very successful at it.  

And I will all also shamelessly plug my new film Tennessee today. It is now playing in a limited engagement this week in LA. I will be heading out soon for the 7:30p showing tonight. Starting December 5th, Tennessee will be available to audiences at the Music Hall 3 Laemmle Theater in Beverly Hills. If you are in LA, please try to make it! I am going tonight with a few friends. If you click the Tennessee title above you can check out the trailer on YouTube. 

Tennessee is a passion project for me. I was introduced to it when I was seeking the financing for another project (that I actually plan to film next year). As soon as I read the script, I knew I had to be part of the project. That's usually how I know I want to produce a film. If I read a script and it sticks with me over time, I know I need to pursue it. With Tennessee, it was immediate. But other projects can take a period of gestating in my mind before I decide I need to make them. 

The writer of Tennessee is Russell Schaumburg. He has a wonderful lyrical quality to his work. I can get lost in his words. And luckily, he felt I should be part of the project. He and I forged a strong bond of wanting to get the film made. It took a number of years to find a situation that would work, but because we both were very determined to tell this story, it eventually found its home and an incredible group of people to help bring it to life. Aaron Woodley directed the film and he created a beautiful depiction of Russell's script for the big screen. The film premiered at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival and soon after found distribution with Vivendi. And now that it is in the theaters for an audience to enjoy, I couldn't be happier or more proud.




Thursday, December 4, 2008

Sundance

Sundance is considered the top film festival for independent films. It has consistently hosted the premieres of some of the best independent films in history. This week, Sundance is releasing its list of films for its 2009 festival in January. Congratulations to everyone who has been accepted! 

It's very exciting for those who get in and disappointing for those of us who didn't (I have a film that didn't get in). But whether or not you are accepted, a producer must carry on and have faith that his or her film will find its audience. Sundance is only one venue for a launch of a film. There are many other wonderful festivals that are great hosts for world premieres. 

This morning Eugene Hernandez of Indiewire released an excellent article on how to work Sundance if you got in and what to do next, if you didn't. Click the Sundance title above to access the article. He has a great list of sales agents and publicists listed in it as well. That's a great resource for every filmmaker. By the way, I am a huge fan of Indiewire. If you are not a member of its community, join now. I read their emails each morning and they keep me informed on what is happening all around me in the indie world. Cheers!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Scheduling Yourself

Before I talk about scheduling, I came across an amazing Web site today. I am very glad I did not have this Web site in college. In anticipation of the many drinks that will be poured this holiday season, I thought I would share this Web site that will help you to impress any Hollywood executive at your next drinks: http://www.cocktaildb.com.

So back to the business of the day: scheduling yourself. Seeing that your days could be filled with meeting after meeting, you need to be hyper aware of your short- and long-term goals and how to fit in what you need to get done in order to accomplish these goals. This means you should have a daily calendar in which you list all of your meetings and, in addition, have some sort of system of tracking your to-do list and checking each task off as you complete them. 

As an assistant, it's typical to have a letter- or legal-sized note pad on which you list all of your tasks that need to get done. As you finish a task, a good idea is to highlight it so you know it is complete but you can still read it. That way, you can know at a glance that you did address that task and it is done. There's nothing like trying to read a now unreadable, crossed out task as your boss is standing over your desk and wanting know the status of the job -- so best to keep them readable as you check them off. Your to-do list can be a long running list that can be added to on a daily basis or you can rewrite your list each day or week (removing those items you already finished -- though keeping them accessible if you need to give a status report). Personally, I like to rewrite my list periodically as it helps to remind me to get those long-gestating tasks done. 

Being a film producer comes with a million tasks and it's impossible to keep everything organized in your head. Our memories only go so far. And it may take time and a lot of trial and error to figure out a system that works for you. So don't get discouraged if you find yourself getting overwhelmed by the large amounts of work to be done. Take it day by day, task by task. Prioritize everything, while making sure to fit in tasks that address your long term goals along the way. In no time (or it will feel like no time because time moves fast in Hollywood), you will look back and be amazed at how much you have accomplished. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Drinks Anyone!

Tonight I have drinks scheduled with a colleague. This means we will meet in the evening (after office hours, usually bet. 7p and 8p), have a drink together, and discuss what is going on in each of our companies. These networking moments help to cultivate new relationships (extremely important to your career), share information or trends, learn about new talent about which we are both excited, and see if there is any business to do together. They also allow you to put a face to an email name or a voice over the telephone. It's not surprising to do business with someone in Hollywood for years and never have a face to face meeting. So when you can get a meeting, take it!

In Hollywood, networking consists of breakfasts, lunches, coffees, or drinks. Some executives (including agents and managers) are booked weeks in advance and much of their assistants' time is spent managing and scheduling these networking moments. Whenever I check in with an executive about scheduling a meeting, I am often directed to the assistant who scrolls through the executive's calendar in search of an opening. I may call in September but not get something on the books until November. 

When I first came to Hollywood and started working as an assistant in the studio system, I was amazed at the intensity of the networking system. Some assistants, executives, agents and managers build their whole social life around their networking. Their days and weeks and years are filled with meetings and parties. I found that every night could be filled with one or two or even three meetings over drinks. So if you love meeting new people all of the time and filling your days with running around to various meetings then this industry is for you!

Many working in Hollywood are juggling overfilled schedules of meetings. They may like running around to meetings all day, but more often than not, their jobs demand it. Hollywood is built on relationships, talent, and trends. In order to stay on top of it all, you must figure out how to tap into this incredible networking machine that runs Hollywood. It's not hard. Just reach out to others and ask if they would be up for a coffee or a drink. 

When starting out, don't aim too high. Schedule meetings with your peers at your level, i.e. if you are an assistant, meet with other assistants. Then work your way up as you gather better and better intel about Hollywood. Never be discouraged if someone blows you off. It's their loss, not yours. And over time, you will figure out what kind of networking system works for you. Personally, I found it difficult to be constantly taking meetings day and night so after a number of years, I slowed my networking down to very essential gatherings. But it took years of me running around to get to the point of feeling comfortable to pull back a bit. Hollywood can enhance your life or it can be your life -- it's your choice.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Marketing Your Film

As a producer, you need to be concerned about marketing your film. In fact, as an indie producer, the onus will be on your shoulders to build and execute a solid marketing plan. Independent filmmakers are usually on their own, creating their own plans for making and selling their films, from beginning concept through initial release and sale. Part of this planning is establishing a strong marketing strategy.

Ideas for marketing your film need to begin in the initial development phase. From the first read, you should have an idea of who your audience will be. Will it have mass appeal or is it more for a niche market? From its inception, a script is usually typecast in a certain genre and then age group and even by sex, i.e. thriller for 18- to 30-year-old men . By honing in on a specific audience, you will be able to ensure the development, creation and exploitation of the film is capitalizing on your audience's desires, which will translate to greater success at the box office. 

Once I have my marketing plan, I lay it out in a business plan for my investors. Even if you aren't planning to devise your own business plan and approach private equity investors, you will need a plan when you pitch the project to other producers, studios or financiers. They want to know your project is geared toward an audience they service. 

If it's not clear who your audience will be then your script probably isn't focused enough. Spend time developing the story so it targets a certain kind of audience. Whether it's male, female, young, old, indie, mass, etc. Have a strong idea of your audience and what they like and build a marketing plan for targeting them. Every film is not for every person. Your audience is built of individuals with specific tastes. You want to harness the group with the taste you are trying to reach.