Have you wondered why independent films suffer from a variety of maladies that seem pervasive in the indie film industry? Poor quality sound, poor quality effects, mundane and uninspired sets/locations, excessive exposition and unnecessary dialogue; these are but a few of the more obvious ones.
Most, if not all, are traceable to the very beginning steps of the filmmaking process. Those problems are compounded throughout preproduction and production, resulting in challenges and unforeseen issues during postproduction. In the end, in most cases, a film fails to reach expectations or worse is completely unwatchable.
A film production is broken down into 5 phases: Development, Preproduction, Production, Postproduction, and Distribution. Unfortunately most indie filmmakers place little or no emphasis on Development and Preproduction. Nevertheless, these are where the foundation for a successful film is constructed. So, with that in mind I offer my thoughts regarding the Development Phase in this article. In a future article I will discuss Preproduction, as well as, a process and pipeline for elevating indie films to the next level.
If you are a “Writer/Director/Producer” you cannot perform those functions simultaneously without a steadfast commitment to objectivity. As a Producer you must perform those tasks as if you the Writer and you the Director are different people with different perspectives on the production. As a Director your creative vision must not be clouded by you the Writer or you the Producer. As a Writer you must recognize and accept that the script will change based on the needs and expectations of you the Producer and you the Director. It is no simple task, and frankly, the story would likely be better served if these positions are filled by three separate people.
Regardless if you are starting from prewritten script or just story ideas, you should consider having 3-5 stories in development at one time. It allows you to develop each story until one rises to the top of the stack and wants to be told. This provides objectivity and focus on the best, most ready for production story, not simply pushing a story ahead because it’s the only one you have. They may all be very good stories but just not ready to be told by you at this time. Or they may be bad ideas that will go nowhere. They should speak to you, calling out in the middle of the night, imploring you, making you “feel”.
Story is everything! A huge budget and A-list talent will not guarantee a successful film. So, it should go without saying, no budget and local talent cannot guarantee one either. Starting with a great story is critical, not only will it be more likely to succeed, but it is more likely to attract the interest of named talent who might be willing to work on it. So, spend time on it, rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite. Tease the story out of the idea; make it compelling, powerful, charged, and dripping with emotion.
In filmmaking, money and time can be considered inversely proportional to one another. Large budgets generally have tight schedules. So, time becomes an independent filmmaker’s friend. It is an almost limitless resource and allows one to proceed with limited financial backing. Nevertheless, be aware interest level declines over time so expend it well.
Avoid the three “crutches” that tend to find their way into nearly every indie film; gratuitous violence, gratuitous language, and gratuitous sex or sexual situations. That’s not to say violence, language and sex cannot be part of the story. However, if the story cannot stand on its own without them, then the story is probably not very good.
These elements, when used, should be organic, seamless, and not call attention to themselves. If you make a film that is rife with any or all of these elements, as crutches, such that it appeals only to adolescent boys, yet by virtue of those crutches garners an R rating or higher; then you have rendered your film unwatchable by the very audience it appeals to.
There are reasons why most major motion pictures are rated PG13. One reason; they can be seen by, and appeal to, the widest demographic, which translates into broader distribution, which further translates into a greater chance for a return on investment.
Here is a test for you; go through your script, remove or adjust any visuals and dialogue that would trigger an R rating then read the script again. Is the story compelling? Are the characters dynamic? If not then the success of the project is questionable.
Not only that, but depending on the violence, language, and sexual situations employed in the film, you may also reduce opportunities for television distribution. Now you’re probably thinking I’ve seen plenty of films presented on TV where they alter, bleep out, blur or cut out questionable content; so what’s the problem?
Think about that for just a second. Are you, as an audience member, not taken out of the experience every time those techniques are employed? Does it not negatively impact your perception of the film? I know it does for me.
Create a generalized, yet real, budget for the film; so you know what you’re not paying for when you ask people to help for free or at reduced rates. You owe it to your cast and crew, and yourself to determine the actual costs of the entire production so you gain a real appreciation for what it takes to make the film. Keep the budget fluid, slowly solidifying as the development process proceeds.
Take the time to identify all personnel involved in a production not just the ones you think you need. Additionally take the time to determine when each position is activated in the process. It makes no sense to bring a person on board without anything for them to do; however, it does make sense to establish a commitment from personnel in advance of when you will require them. Consider carefully the number of jobs any one individual will perform. Make sure any job overlap doesn’t diminish objectivity within the process.
Create a rough marketing plan. Make sure it’s realistic and doable. There are a lot of ways to market at little to no cost but that doesn’t change the need for a solid, powerful marketing campaign.
Develop a financing plan. Once you have a realistic budget the responsibility is yours to properly finance the film. You should not ask cast or crew to work for free or reduced rates until you have acquired as much financing as you can. Which includes your own contributions to the project; after all if you aren’t willing to support the project how can you expect others to. Potential financiers need to know the project is not just a great story worth telling but that a system is in place that guarantees completion of the project and the product has a sound, viable marketing plan. Their principle interest is in return on investment and as a producer it should be yours as well.
Don’t move beyond the development stage until you have financing or in kind offerings in place that support the entire production. Although there are numerous avenues for financing, none of them are particularly easy approaches to acquiring the funding necessary, the exception being self financing.
A word of caution on self financing; if you hope to achieve a return on your investment make sure that you are not the only one enamored with the story and make sure the feedback you get is real. As gratifying as it may be to have everyone love your idea, don’t surround yourself with sycophants. Cast and crew that have a vested interest in the project are not necessarily objective.
Crowd funding has tremendous potential for financing a film. Nevertheless, very few crowd funded film projects receive the funding they request. Why is that? Well, I’ve seen quite a few pitches on crowd funding sites and they all seem to suffer from the same issue; they’re dreadful. If they have a video component it’s usually comprised of a talking head begging for help. I don’t know about you but it turns me off.
Just like a good story, a pitch for crowd funding must be compelling, hold the audience, and make them feel something, which in turn helps them to want to see the film made. They need to feel as much passion for the story as you do. At the risk of stating the obvious, films are visual so your crowd funding campaign should be as visual as possible. Don’t have endless copy strewn across the page; few people will take the time to read it.
Produce a teaser that has high production value, the same you will employ in the final project. Obviously you should target potential investors from those that are attracted to your type of story and genre. Find your audience and reach out to them. The shotgun approach may work for family and friends but will probably be less successful beyond that.
If you want people, other than friends and family, to invest in a project, they’ll be more willing if you are taking risk right along with them. That means putting up money or in-kind offerings yourself. Don’t expect the incentives you offer to hold much power of persuasion. They are niceties not the deciding factor for investors.