Monday, October 24, 2011

The Catch-22

So you haven't found millions for your feature by knocking on potential investors' doors, right?  I mean, come on, you're prepared.  You have a kick-ass business package, you've providing bios on the major players: the producers, the writer, the director.  You've even provided a list of  who you "saw" to be in the cast for each major role.  There's a whole portion in the business package about independent and studio films that have done well in the box office and are just like yours.  In my case, it would be time travel movies.  It lays out how sci-fi, specifically time travel, has been real hot these days, and there's a bigger market than ever for it.  Your pitch is perfect... you knock their socks off!  Then they ruin your day by asking: who's going to be in it?  Um... you mean, like, what actors?  And they'll say, yeah, how will we sell this film without some name actors?  Well, we have a list of people we "see" in these roles... but... isn't that why we came to you?  We came to you so you can help us pay these people to be in our film.  This is when your head starts spinning out of control.  Okay, your brain will go something like this:

1) The investor just told me we need a cast to receive their financing.
2) Let's contact a talent agency and pitch the project to their client.
3) The agent says great, show me some proof that you have financing and we'll send it their way.
3) Great!  So all we need is to get some money.  Let's get it from an investor.
4) Refer back to #1

Ugh!  This is so frustrating, isn't it?!  Hence, the vicious loop of a catch-22.

Okay, I'm fully aware that I'm just another guy with a screenplay and a couple of producers to back me up... but how do you break through the catch-22 from hell?  Listen, it's been done.  I've heard stories, and they're based on true stories.  It can be done; it has been done.  I am personally and admittedly still working on that, but I have learned a thing or two about this.  Here's the unfortunate answer that makes this all even more challenging: it seems the key to all this isn't what comes before what.  Everything has to happen at the same time.  All the stars must align; the timing must be perfect.  And then it takes a little more than that: faith and trust.  I'm a first time feature film director.  Anyone who will invest in me, investor or actor, needs to have serious faith in me.  Why?  Because the former is putting millions of dollars on the line and the latter is putting his career and reputation on the line.  So when you start out, strength of script is your best weapon to break through this catch-22.  The majority of these directors' careers end here.  Don't be one of them!  We must be terrible quitters.

We learned pretty early on that going to investors without anyone attached to our film was really turning our already very difficult attempt at finding financing into something next to impossible.  So what's next?  At this point we tried getting our script through the doors of every major talent agency in the business.  Nobody wanted to read our unsolicited material.  Don't worry, that's still not truly a dead end.  You learn fast that you have to get through the screening of an agent before the actors even hear your script exists.  It makes sense.  There's so many screenplays being tossed around those agencies.  Too many.  The agents and their assistants filter out what works for their clients and what doesn't.  Now my producers have connections, but talent is not their realm.  We needed someone who can actually get my screenplay into actors' hands and therefore their agencies' hands.

Remember that start up money I said to save up?  The time has come to use it.  Use it on a casting director.  These people are paid to get you through that door.  It's a risk, but a necessary one.  They should have relationships with not only the talents' agent, but even with some of the talent themselves. Their job is to have their pulse on what's going on in the actors' world... who's available, who isn't, who's looking to do an indie film, who just landed a new pilot, who's out of your price range, and who is willing to take a shot on a first time feature director (not enough, I'm afraid).  How do you grab a casting director's attention?  Your screenplay!  But here's the best part.  Casting directors don't need to ask about who's in your film.  That's their job!  You hire them to help you do just that.  This process is just like anything you've done up to this point.  Expect several rejections, but it only takes one yes from someone with some clout in the industry.  Then you have to pay up, and casting directors aren't cheap.  But, I can't emphasize this enough: we need them.  They will connect a wide variety of talent to your screenplay, something you and your producers most likely can't do.  Then you have to hope your script speaks for itself.  How can anyone like it if they've never read it?

Suddenly your script is solicited material.  Awesome!  Now get ready to do a lot of work.  Casting is a lot crazier than I expected, that's for sure.  Murphy's Law is a little too prominent here.  There is strategy in casting your movie, and it's something that must be figured out at the very beginning.  More on that next time...

Monday, October 17, 2011

Surviving the Journey

Great, so now you have a producer and you.  A team of two is twice as strong as a team of one.  Unfortunately, it's not strong enough.  Little do many people realize, that while producers are producing and writers are writing (and directors aren't directing yet, that's for sure), no one is getting paid.  Why?  Because there's no budget yet!  Everyone at this point works for free.  Only people who you start with will do this.  I should also remind you of what sometimes isn't as obvious as it should be: we all need to make money to live.  So many people just stop there.  I need money to eat, therefore if I'm not getting paid for my own project, my project isn't an option.  Wrong!  Wrong, wrong, sooo wrong!  There are ways.  These ways can suck, but there are ways.  So how does one survive the journey?  I can at least tell you how I am.

I worked in production for about three years.  Seventy-five percent of that time I was waking up at 12 noon and waiting for that next phone call.  It works when you're living at home, but once rent enters the picture... forget it.  And even if you're lucky enough to be working on a set as anything, it's not only mentally and physically draining, but it's even harder when it's not your own project.  Don't get me wrong; working on sets can be really fun.  When you love making movies, there's always great stories and experiences and people you meet.  It reminds me of how I sometimes feel after seeing an amazing film that moves me in the theater.  Holy crap, that was great!!!  Holy crap, why am I not making my own damn movie?!  I can do this!  It's a wonderful and horrible feeling but it's a good feeling to get; it keeps you hungry.  So what can you do while you try to get your project off the ground?  Anything!  I consider myself really lucky for finding my way into post-production and actually doing okay.  For years, while always having my project in the forefront of my mind, I worked in shipping, then making dubs, then assistant editing, and finally editing.  And I like editing a lot.  But obviously, it's not for everyone.  Find a job you can at least tolerate.  If it's creative, that's even better.  If you're a writer like me don't ever stop because you have a regular job.  I have real psychological issues when it comes to this... I can't stop writing.  It's kind of weird to most people, but I seriously will go nuts if I don't write for a long enough period of time.  I'm sure there's a few other disturbed people out there who understand.

So this startup money isn't for you or your producer, it's for the other people who are doing what they love.  These are the key positions for your film.  We call this money "development money," and it's essential to the start of any film.  If no one's heard of you, money always helps people listen in this business.  And who can blame them; they're surviving the journey too!

At this point we have some start up money saved up (a helpful, supportive family is always a plus, but not everyone is that lucky).  Now using it to make a great short film is actually a pretty good idea too, but I'm assuming we're ready for the feature film leap of faith.  Might as well jump out of a plane after a parachute hoping you'll find it, strap it on, and pull the ripcord in time.  So I've learned it's best to use as little money as possible for your feature.  In my case, my trusty producer sought after another producer that could help us out.  What does it take to find this person?  Hope he/she likes your script too!  But the difference now is this is someone you didn't know before... and this new person knows things you and your producer probably don't know.  He/she may know more people, open more doors, and come up with new ideas.  This blog was her idea!  Still hold on to the development money, though.  You'll spend it before you know it.

So anyway, suddenly I found myself with two producers.  A team of three is much better than a team of two, right?  And guess what, suddenly we have a team.  I find my odds already getting better.  But the obvious is still an issue.  The three of us combined don't have millions of dollars to spend on our movie.  If we did, we'd already be shooting.  So how do we find someone crazy enough... or actually genius enough, to put all their faith in a first time feature director?  This is without question the hardest part of getting the film made.  And this is the thing... the big secret in the business, for whatever reason, is where to find these risk-taking investors.  It's a big mystery.  Production companies, film finance companies, just darn rich people who love film... they exist, but they're hard to find.  What happens when you find a potential financier?  Unfortunately, strength of script isn't enough... people with money always ask for the same thing, and it'll cost you.   Get ready for the all powerful catch 22 of filmmaking...

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Finding Your Producer

So you have screenplay and you've reworked it to a point where it's presentable to someone.  Who is that someone?  I wish I had an answer for that.  It could be anyone.  If you don't know anyone, find someone.  What are you looking for in this person?  Someone who can be a producer.  A producer is someone who does all the crap we don't want to do.  To me it's the worst job in the world.  To them, there's nothing they'd rather be doing... which is great... because it's a really tough job to do.

How do you find yourself a producer?  You may be just out of school, you may be already working on sets in the middle of hell as a production assistant (ahem, did I write that out loud).  Maybe you're just out after winning best short film at your film school!  Congratulations... you're qualified to PA!   Unless your dad is the head of a studio, your mom starred in a studio film, your brother is a working director of photography, or your best friend loves to give away $3 million dollars at a time just for fun... you're so screwed.  You're probably going to PA next.  Now don't get me wrong, there are people who PA as a living and love it.  God bless them.  I tried it.  It was horrible.  But more importantly and simply put, it's just necessary.  Think of it like pledging a frat/sorority or being initiated into a club.  It's your best chance at two major things: Learning how a set works and networking.  Why network?  To find your producer!  And we've come full circle!  That's how I did it, anyway.  That pain-in-the-ass first AD that hired me actually became my friend... then believed in my script... then simply believed in me.

I'm not going to say this is how it must be done, but it's definitely a way it can be done.  There are so many ways to reach an already tough goal.  Here's the one that worked for me: I begged this one first AD I worked for to watch my shorts, having no idea where this could go.  One of his friends I also worked with saw it and raved about it.  That's what got him to finally come over and watch (I guess that's a decent strategy).  Anyway, he was impressed.  Then I gave him Trust Us, the time travel script I've been working on forever.  I had to really annoy the heck out of him to finally get him to even read that.  It worked, and he loved it.  We haven't shut up about this project since.  Now that's love for something!  That's the dedication you need to find in your producer.  Find a #1 fan of your work.  I was just darn lucky to learn that this one aspiring producer is one hell of a pitcher, and more importantly his motivation actually matches mine.  These are people you NEED to surround yourself with, because everyone gets discouraged... most quit.  But, remember, people like us are terrible quitters... good!  It's the most important quality for a filmmaker to have, especially since the odds are flat-out unfair.  We need to keep that 22 year old college graduate who's never PA'ed attitude, otherwise we'll fold.  And after so much rejection, it's not so easy at first.  Make it become easy or you'll go crazy.

Again, that's one way to do it.  This person who believes in your project can come from anywhere.  So many various people have come in and out of my production and festival life.  There's too many to count in the last ten or so years... seriously, it's crazy!  Most of them are just interesting people you meet, but the more of these people you meet, the better your chances in finding someone else who loves your project as much as you.  Best advice I can give on making connections and networking that kept me going:  people will break promises they made to help you 99% of the time.  But that one percent... that one in a hundred, can really help you.  Maybe it's one in 500.  All I ever needed to start was one.  I met other directors, producers, small budget financiers, aspiring crew members, PR people, and even theater owners... they all at one point or another said they'd help.  I'd call to follow up (this is a must) ... maybe we'd go back and forth a few times, then eventually... nothing.  This is so normal.  So many people with big ideas, but such a small percentage see the light of day.  Don't get discouraged.

How did I catch anyone's attention?  There's the strength of the script, but I also wrote and directed two short films, one in college and an indie short just out of it.  I think they were really good.  If you don't have anything like that, and now with the cheaper costs of video, you really should make a short film or two to show people you can make a movie that works along with your rewritten and rewritten, finished script.  Just finishing a quality short film that makes sense and moves people in some way is such a huge accomplishment.  Then using that to enter the festival scene only helps. 

So I find a good strategy is to look around... be involved... network as well as you can.  I usually hate networking and I hate pitching even more.  Although I'm confident about my screenplays and all I want is for people to read them, it's awkward for me to sell myself.  It's something I need to work on.  But when you're on set and you start to know people, it's much easier.  You may find another PA who's also just getting started, who wants to produce some day.  A PA who wants to be a producer... that actually makes me laugh because anyone who wants to produce actually should start as a PA.  Directors... not so much.  At least not for too long.  But anyway, it's so important to find that person who doesn't want to direct but wants to make a project happen.  It's the perfect team.  You find the right person who makes phone calls, will search for potential investors, will help guide your script and make it better... and maybe most importantly you find someone you can trust.  Then you're in great shape.  You can split your duties and use each others strengths to make this happen.  Remember, a team of two is twice as strong as a team of one.

So you have a script and a producer... what's next?  I quickly learned it's time to find another producer.  Seriously... you expect this producer of yours to do everything?  He/she will kill you first!   Besides, another producer may be a gateway to other opportunities.  His or her contacts are your contacts.  By the way, do you at least have some money in the bank?  You're going to need it...

Friday, October 7, 2011

Trust Me, Trust You, Trust Us

Making movies is no easy task.  That's what anyone who's tried to break into the business knows, and unfortunately this forces people to decide it's not worth the trouble.  For them, it probably isn't, but for people like me, and maybe us, we're not very good at giving up.  This blog is for those people who've written a screenplay, discovered a screenplay, or just wanted to make a movie and don't know a soul in the business or where to start.  Maybe you're past all this and in development hell; not the studio kind, but your own, personal kind.  Maybe you're just curious about how a movie is really made, from idea to theatrical release.  Maybe you wonder how a director or producer can get past that catch-22 of funding versus cast for their first feature film.  How do you even get anybody to read your script in the first place?  My objective is to tell you what has so far been impossibly possible.  This is my road to wrap...

Now I'm just one guy trying to make his first feature film.  That alone is a hard thing to do.  Why?  Money.  Most people don't have $5 million bucks saved up in their bank account.  (By the way, if you do, you probably don't need to read any of this.  Make the movie; you're all set to go!)  But seriously, I'm closer than I've ever been.  As long as I'm moving in the right direction, as slow as it's been, it's a good thing.

But who cares how the already successful people did it or are doing it?  They'll tell you some crazy story about how they sold their house to finish their film.  They were in a film festival and some well-known producer approached them and said, "Hey, let's do a movie."  Those stories are crazy!  One of the first things I learned about festivals, especially the smaller ones: if you want to win, make sure they've heard of someone working on, or in, your film.  It's not always the case, but it usually is.

So how does this all start?  With a screenplay, whether you wrote it yourself or you discovered one you love.  How many people in regular life, in and out of the business, have told you they have a great idea for a movie?  They wrote a 2 page treatment and it just need to be fleshed out.  Or more commonly, they know what it takes to make an amazing screenplay, but they just haven't finished it yet.  In my experience, this is most people.  First step to making a movie?  Finish the damn script!  Do whatever it takes... even if it comes out as crap at least you crapped it out!  That's the hardest part of writing, getting it on the page, and more importantly, getting it done.  No one wants to read about an incomplete great idea.  I hate pitching ideas.  I just want to say read the damn thing and let speak for itself.  Of course, that never happens either, so get used to pitching.

Once the screenplay finished, take a month or two.  At least that's what I need... at least.  I can write a feature in 3 weeks with virtually no problem, but it takes me months to years to write a screenplay.  Why?  I can't do proper rewrites unless I step away for a while.  That's just me; everyone's different.  I could go on and on about writing, so I'll try to stay general.  I have a rule of thumb for writing that I've made up along the way.  I break it up by each draft, starting with the 1st:

1) Get the story down, even if most of it sucks.  Make sure everything is paced right, and you have an Act I, II, and III... unless of course you're purposely breaking that rule (I don't recommend that, though).

2) You've got it down, now you have something to work with.  Make sure it all makes sense and just go over the plot again at least.

3) Pay special attention to character.  Make sure as many as possible are three dimensional and learn something by the end of the story.  Make sure everything said or done reveals character or plot.  And lose some extraneous exposition (I always have to do that).

4) Make sure the theme stays intact and almost everything that goes on plays off that theme as much as possible.  At the same time, I like to make sure that if a scene doesn't have something going on during dialogue, such as eating, picking out a book, or building a model airplane, add it.  Those actions can always give you a way to reveal more character.  If one guy is a pain in the ass, have him pull off his friend's hat, or whatever it is.

5) Dialogue.  If it's not tight already, do a round to make sure characters don't sound alike and stay true to who they are.  Make sure characters speak like they should and aren't  saying things like, "Yes, my dear friend, I am fully aware you were not present."  Change it to something like: Hey, man, I get you weren't there."  Saves space too.

Okay, so we've got ourselves a rewritten and rewritten screenplay.  Great, you're done, right?  No.  Now you need to find someone else who loves it as much as you.  I'll explain next time...