Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bill Mechanic's Wise Words

A Twitter friend shared this link with me from Nikki Finke's blog of Bill Mechanic's keynote speech about the future of indies from the Independent Film & Television Production Conference. Mechanic is the former chairman/CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment and is now an indie producer (Coraline) and owner of Pandemonium LLC.

I found the speech enlightening, though it inspires me to be a survivor even more. I think what most people forget is that indie filmmakers are used to tough times. We struggle day in/day out even when the economy is amazing. What's a recession and the retraction of film deals? It's the day in a life of an indie filmmaker. We are used to rejection and we are used to forging new paths for our work and having a million obstacles to overcome. 

The interesting thing is hearing those who have achieved a certain level of success being humbled and literally and suddenly being at the same level as those who have struggled for that exact success. It's a level playing field right now. If you don't see that as an opportunity then I don't know what to else to say! 

A Script Reader Speaks

Check out this post A Script Reader Speaks from screenwriter Scott Myers. It offers an insight into what script readers look for in screenplays. Readers are employed by the agencies, studios and production companies to help them handle the huge mounds of daily screenplay submissions. It's great to know these insider viewpoints as you prepare to send out your scripts to production companies or studios. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

How to Make Indie Movies Today

It's true the independent film world is a mess right now. I'm so embroiled in it right now that I've been MIA trying to wrap my head around the madness and its effects on my projects. 

Amidst the madness, I got to thinking...

So how do we keep making movies? The best answer I could come up with was: Where there is a will, there is a way. And it's that will of indie filmmakers that will keep the industry going. 

I keep reading all of these articles and summaries of roundtables and panels and I keep hearing the same thing -- the indie market has fallen apart and no one can figure out how to make the business model work anymore. 

As we are trying to figure out a way to sell our films, why don't we look at how to make them? 

The key to making movies today is making them with less resources. Even though it may be your 4th or 5th movie and your budgets grew each time, you may need to make your next film for the smallest budget yet. 

That's right, make your movies for less money. There are less buyers and less money to buy. So if you want make movies now for the indie market and want to feel somewhat competitive, make a good, entertaining film on a really small budget. 

And that ain't easy folks. I've made a ton of micro-budget films and each one has given me a chunk of the wonderful grey hair I now have on my head. But if you want to keep making movies in this environment then embrace the grey. 

You may be saying to yourself, "I paid my dues. It's time I were paid a decent salary to make a movie." Well, you can either keep thinking that or make a movie. 

Making a movie for little money doesn't mean you have to do it for free. Give yourself a great pay day for when the film does make money. And if you are making a quality film, despite the lack of resources, then you will most likely make some money. So gamble on yourself and you just might get a great pay off, maybe not today, but perhaps tomorrow. 

Or you can sit back and cry about not finding that $2 to $5 million to make your movie. And while you are crying, me and my fellow micro-budget filmmakers will go make some more movies. Won't you join us?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

In Music Licensing Hell

We are handling our deliverables on Not Since You right now and realizing that due to the sad state of the indie landscape right now, our music is too expensive. Last year when we chose the songs, our sales projections were higher and our future seemed brighter. 

But, as we all have noticed, the indie world is sliding down into a neglected, sorry state. And the buyers are taking full advantage. It is definitely a buyers' market right now and we sellers are feeling the pinch. From firsthand experience I am seeing sales diminish and interest in indie films plummet. My foreign sales agent even said that buyers would rather have a bad movie with big actors in it than a great one starring actors with no name value.

Our sales projections in one year have dropped by 75%. That is huge! I'm going to go cry in the corner right now. 

So now that we have to pay for the music licenses, we are determining that it's better for the project and our investors if we trim the fees. And this means replacing some songs. It also means opening up the sound mix (which costs money) and then re-mixing the new songs into the film. This is usually something you want to avoid at all costs but unfortunately, we couldn't. It's cheaper for us to replace the songs than to pay the licenses that were negotiated last year. 

And we have a deadline for the deliverables so we are racing to source and replace the songs and then create our master tapes for delivery on time. Our deliverables also include paperwork from the show. I will be spending tomorrow going through all of the contracts and scanning the necessary ones to a CD. I am trying my best to save trees -- though my agent said they need to print the paperwork anyway. At least I can feel good that I did my part in saving the world, one piece of paper at a time. 

Hopefully I will be out of music licensing hell next week. That's our deadline so we can stay on schedule. It's coming up fast! Wish us luck!

Monday, September 21, 2009

No One Wants to Be an Indie Filmmaker -- At First

I don't think anyone starts out wanting to be an independent filmmaker. I'm sure most of us would work with the studios if they let us express our creative vision and gave us the money to make our films. Why take on all the responsibilities of being independent unless you had to?

Don't get me wrong. I love being an indie producer. I enjoy being able to make movies that I wholeheartedly believe in. When one of my films makes it to the big screen, I know it contains a part of my soul. That is an amazing feeling. And being independent allows me to have that feeling over and over again.

And the grass is not always greener on the other side. I worked in the studio system. I enjoyed my time there and I hope to work with the studios again. But it is a corporate setting and it's very difficult to express your own vision in that world. I wanted the opportunity in my career to truly express who I was as a filmmaker, whether or not I would eventually make my way back to the studios.

The reasons to become independent are many: 

You may want to make small intimate dramas or experimental projects or you like the amount of control being independent allows. Or you feel shut out from the studio system and you still want to make movies. Or you want to break into the studio system by showing them what you can do on your own. Or you don't like the corporate film world. Or you live in an area where no film companies exist -- you have to be independent! 

So what does this mean? This choosing v. wanting.

I think anytime someone chooses to do something over wanting to do it, they are sacrificing some aspect of their goal. They are choosing to forsake the other option, just as they are choosing to embrace one. And it's this sacrifice that can gnaw at you for eternity if you let it and create doubt in your career path.  

As an independent filmmaker, I think it's important to realize you made a choice and acknowledge the sacrifice you are making with that choice. Give yourself time to consider your choice and if it makes sense to turn it into a want. Don't just settle on being an independent filmmaker. Know that it is something you want!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

What Are the Components of a Successful Indie Film?

Every hit indie film has similar components that contribute toward its success. Let's think about them.
  1. Strong writing. From the plot to the dialogue to the characterizations to the structure, a good indie film is made of solid, well-thought out writing. Brokeback Mountain was a beautifully written story about two cowboys who fall in love. Do you think it would have been as successful if it hadn't been well written?
  2. Solid directing. A film can have a strong script but be ruined by a lack of vision from a director. Tom McCarthy's choices in both The Station Agent and The Visitor led to two wonderful films with well-executed quiet moments. In lesser hands, the same scripts could have easily fallen flat. 
  3. Excellent acting. Even the best script and an amazing director cannot save a film if the acting is poor. Even with no-name actors, a film has a fighting chance if the acting is strong. Napoleon Dynamite was full of no-name actors who could act!
  4. Capable producer. I know capable sounds like a weak adjective but being capable is a very important attribute for a producer. He or she can't just be an excellent money person or just be a strong leader. A producer needs to be able to capably handle a million different things. It's impossible to be amazing at everything, so in the end, the producer needs to be capable of executing a film from beginning to end -- with strengths in many areas and know how to compensate for their weaknesses in others. 
  5. Good sound. A great film can be ruined with bad sound. Don't skimp on your production sound. 
  6. Enjoyable music. I can still hear Juno's catchy tunes in my head. 
All it takes is one weak link and a film can go from being genius to mediocre. Focus on having quality talent in every aspect of your filmmaking and your chances will be high for success!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Flicker Problem in Our Film Fixed! Here's How

In our film Not Since You we found a very strange flicker problem in one of the scenes. It made the scene look as if a lightning storm was going on within the scene. We had no idea how it happened. We filmed a number of other shots the very same day on our 35mm camera with no issues and the problem affected two different lab rolls. It happened very randomly on a single day. Weird. 

Our post house thought it might be a bad HMI light, camera malfunction, or a lab error. Without knowing the exact source of the issue, it made it harder to determine the best fix. 

And one of the largest problems was that the flicker was not noticeable until over a year after filming. Why was that? We never projected the film on the big screen until we were working in a Digital Intermediate. Throughout editing, we watched the film on a tiny screen and couldn't detect the flicker. Once on the big screen though, you could definitely see it and we worried the film would never pass Quality Control once we sold it. Now what? (as my blood pressure rose)

Well, first, we hoped the flicker could be captured by a certain algorithm and then removed. Unfortunately, our flicker was not moving at a constant rate. Instead it was fluctuating at many different speeds, making it impossible to capture easily and remove. This was when we knew we had a big problem. 

I then contacted our insurance company. I was very nervous about filing a claim more than a year after filming but the problem obviously occurred during production. I hoped I wouldn't run into any problems. Sure enough, the insurance company's biggest complaint was the amount of time between filming and the detection of the problem. I explained what happened and had three post houses confirm that it happened during filming. That's all I could do. And the insurance company eventually agreed to honor the claim. (blood pressure began easing)

The next step was getting quotes from post houses who could fix the problem. However, this was not a simple fix nor was it going to be cheap. I went to four different places and luckily one referred me to the wonderful team at Identity Studios in LA. These guys are miracle workers. None of the other post houses could offer an affordable fix that would even work well. Not because they weren't capable post houses -- the others just didn't have the specialized experience with this kind of problem.

Identity, on the other hand, had experience with these kinds of flickers and they offered a near-perfect fix and an affordable quote. When I say affordable, I mean affordable in the post world of costs. It was still very expensive! I could have bought a really nice car with what it cost. 

I guess the moral of this story is to not give up. If you see a problem that seems impossible to fix. Keep trying until you find a way. Just like we found Identity, you will find your miracle worker too.

Friday, September 18, 2009

How to Take Feedback on Your Script and Film

I was inspired to write this post from reading this blog post "I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script" from A History of Violence screenwriter Josh Olson. Some of you may be offended by his offhanded way of dismissing new writers but if you read closely, you will find some very sage advice. 

And that advice is to listen and learn and be gracious for any feedback from anyone, especially those who have achieved success in the very field in which you are seeking similar success. And, very importantly, if you seek feedback, expect to get both good and bad and embrace BOTH. The good is great to hear but the bad is what is going to make you a stronger writer or filmmaker if you listen and learn from it. 

Though in your face, I am very sympathetic to Josh's sentiments. I too am asked to read tons of scripts and it's my job to do so and I enjoy it. But sometimes, after having taken my time away from my own projects to read a script and provide some insights, I get the same pat response Olson's friend gave him or sometimes even NO response from the writer. Like Olson, it stings. 

I have to agree that it's really hard to read someone's script and know that it isn't very good and then have to think about how to kindly be honest and supportive. It's not easy and it takes time to write those emails, even if they sound generic to the screenwriter. You don't want to offend someone who has spent a long time writing a script but you also don't want to just lie and say it's great because how is that helping him or her achieve success?

Unfortunately, you can't please everyone. I just hope people listen to Olson and realize that though he has achieved success, he is still human and deserves to be handled with respect. I'm sure he is reacting mainly to the fact that this writer was pissed and dismissive of Olson's efforts to provide honest feedback. In the end, we all could stand to be better and let's be grateful someone cares enough to tell us so. 

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Back to Business: Deliverables Cost $$$$$

Had a great vacation despite having to negotiate a foreign sales deal in the middle of it -- c'est la vie for an indie filmmaker! 

And with this deal comes the dreaded deliverables! My nightmare is becoming my reality. I shake in my shoes every time the deliverable requirements come around. 

Why are deliverables a nightmare? Because everything AND the kitchen sink is usually required to be delivered and within a short timeframe and the worst part about them is that they are expensive! OUCH!!! 

Right now, we are delivering our film Not Since You to our foreign sales agent and clearing music licenses. This is a painstaking process that requires delivering the film and sound and contracts in every form possible. Costs can really add up especially if you need to work with multiple facilities in order to cover every aspect of the delivery. 

The scary part is that deals can definitely go away if you can't provide all your deliverables. So you have to be extremely careful about fulfilling what is required. 

A word of caution: do not blindly sign off on a deliverable schedule. Do the research on how much each item is going to cost or you may find you don't have the funds to handle what is required by that company. And be sure to have help from a producer's rep and/or a lawyer (preferably both) when going over any contracts. Knowledge is power! 

Thursday, September 10, 2009

On Vacation!

I'm on a blogging hiatus due to vacation. Ah, relaxation. We all need it. More blog entries to come in the middle of next week. Cheers!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Articles to Read: No Fee Film Festivals and Going Solo on Distro

Two Good Articles to Check Out

Why Are Good Screenplays So Hard to Find?

Good screenplays are like finding a needle in a haystack. Why is that? I know there are strong, successful screenwriters out there. So why isn't there more good product to choose from when we producers are looking for more material?

I'll speculate a little: 

1) Good Screenwriters don't have to write on spec. They can be hired onto projects by the studios or financiers or they can pitch their ideas and get the money to write them. This is where indie producers who usually don't have development money really lose out. 

2) Good Screenwriters command the attention of bigger, more successful producers who get the first pick of their work.

3) Good screenwriters are repped by agencies who ignore smaller producers, believing the project will not have a chance of getting made with a decent price tag or at all with a smaller producer on board. 

4) Good Screenwriters can write on spec and get their scripts sold or perhaps set up for development at a big production company thus leaving the smaller producer out of the loop entirely.

5) Once successful, Good Screenwriters aren't in the orbit of smaller producers. Or they choose not to be.  

Where does that leave the smaller producers who have no money or reputation to get a Good Screenwriter?

1) You find newer screenwriters to mold and shape into the Good Screenwriter. You make a film based on their freshman scripts and cross your fingers it's a hit. And when that Good Screenwriter grows up, you hope your relationship has them bringing their new projects your way.

2) You rattle the trees of agents and managers who will blow the dust off the scripts sitting on their shelves. Or take pity on you and throw a spec (usually one they don't love) your way. 

3) You spend the time developing mediocre material into a gem. 

4) You find and option books that the Good Screenwriters want to adapt.

5) You garner some success and go after the Good Screenwriters based on the heat from your success.

6) You befriend those who work at production companies with deals and you bring them material for Good Screenwriters. You then partner and they help you get that elusive Good Screenwriter on board.

7) You track winners of screenwriting contests and go after them to consider their material.

8) You hit up your friends in the industry for referrals to the up and coming screenwriters. 

9) You attend festivals and screenings of material from new talent. 

10) You come up with any and every idea to find sources of material. Your Aunt Gladys might even be a budding screenwriter. 

You just never know where that Good Screenwriter is going to come from. That Good Screenwriter might even be you. The best thing is to keep your eyes and ears open and keep looking and read, read, read!