By Chris Hood
[This is Part Two of an ongoing series to help educate aspiring filmmakers on the process of making their first film. Previous articles in this series can be found at BleedingCool.com and MovieIndustry.com]
The first, and possibly most important, part of the filmmaking process is deciding what movie you're going to make. Also around this time you'll need to decide with whom you're going to go on this journey (or "vacation to hell" seems to fit as well). In fact, these are just two of the key issues you need to get right at this early stage of your project which will pave the way for success or ensure imminent, painful, potentially suicide-inducing failure. Such are the trials of this business – there are infinitely more ways to screw up than get it right. And this is where you'll likely establish if you're going to be the shark or the chum so decide now – "Fish or be bait."
Let's start with the formation of your team. Now, by "team", I'm referring only to the key person or persons you'll be bringing on board at the very beginning. We're talking about your producing partner; your support system. This is not the time to be thinking about production-related tasks or personnel and this is a common mistake with new filmmakers. People get excited about the process. They get excited about the prospect of looking ahead to the "fun" stuff and waste time and energy on elements that need to be left to their proper order. It's too early to be focusing on your cinematographer, your composer, which camera you're going to use, where you're going to hold auditions or who you're going to thank when you win your Oscar. Stay focused! This mantra should be with you every step of the way throughout the entire process because there will be hundreds (yes, literally hundreds) of possible distractions throughout this adventure just waiting to trip you up. Stay on point.
So whom are you taking this journey with? Now, notice I'm not asking "if" you're going to have someone with you, but "whom" that person will be. The reason I'm so adamant about this is that you're either a creative person or a business person. You're not both. Almost no one is. The first and often biggest mistake is a filmmaker thinking they can do it all. You can't. Accept that now and thank me later. It is imperative that you have at least one business person or you're almost certain to fail. This failure may not evidence itself until late in the process or even when the film is done, but it will come.
When entering the fray, we often (understandably) turn to those closest to us. Aside from the comfort it affords, it's often necessary and the only practical option. Friends and family love and support us. They want to help us (most of the time) and want to see us succeed (more often than not). We trust them. And most important – they'll often work for free. It's funny how strangers rarely allow themselves to be exploited the way friends do.
Loyalty is a great quality. I'm very loyal to those who are loyal in return…and this has led to some bad decisions in my life. My dog is the most loyal creature on the planet…but I'm not going to have him operate the camera for me. If you're the creative force in the project, find the "right" person, a business person, to help. If you're the business person, you probably already know you need to find your creative counterpart. That's the benefit of being a business person – you're smarter! Where it gets complicated is that creative people generally hang around creative people. The same goes for the business-minded. If you have to go outside your circle, do it. Don't expect someone to rise to the occasion. It takes at least two at this phase to press forward.
The other key factor during development is finding your project. In most cases, the filmmaker already has a script they want to do, usually their own, which tells you they are the "creative" personality. Whether you're taking a script already written, commissioning or writing one yourself, or seeking something to fit your needs, this is the point where the business of film comes in. Do you want film to be a career or a hobby? If you address this questions seriously, you'll know that to make a career out of making movies, your movies have to make money. Period. If you're fine losing your investors' money and playing the big shot at various film festivals than you're a hobbyist…and you need to know just how much the odds are stacked against you. L.A. is filled with hobbyists that think they're going to be the next James Cameron. It's the business person that knows they're not. It's a business person that aspires to be the next Roger Corman.
For this year's Sundance Film Festival there were over 4000 feature submissions. 121 were selected. Before you try to convince yourself that those odds aren't that bad, consider that most of these films won't get distribution. Yes, that's right – you get yourself into the most prestigious film festival in the world and you're still unlikely to get a distributor. Now for those few films that did get (or already had) distribution, take a look at how many have A-list actors that you won't be able to afford. Now take a few more off that list for filmmakers who have connections to the festival or were able to pull some favors to get in. If you still like your odds, it's because you're a hobbyist. Film festivals are, for the most part, for hobbyists. Some hobbyists get lucky, so if that's your plan, best of luck. I have no advice to give you because film is a career for me. Maybe save ten bucks out of your budget for lottery tickets as well. But know that hobbyists almost never make a second film.
With those hard facts in mind, you need to make a smart business decision and pick a project that has the best chance of getting distribution; a project that has the best chance of getting sold and getting your investors' money back. That means stay away from festival-bait that is repellent to the masses. Steer clear of drama, romance, comedy and documentary. Generally speaking, people don't want them. Distributors don't want them. They are hard to sell. A bad sci-fi film has a better chance of making money than a good drama. Yes, there are exceptions, but they are few and far between. Kind of like getting struck by lightning. To quote an underrated classic – "What do you like? You like the odds on lightning?" If your drama has an A-lister maybe you have something there, but then you're probably not looking to an indy guy like me for guidance if your dad is golfing buddies with George Clooney. Be smart and give yourself the best possible chance of making a film that can sell. Make an action film or a horror film. Make a fantasy or sci-fi piece. Make a family film or erotic film…or an erotic, family film for that matter…er, maybe not. These are the genres that buyers around the world want. I've never had a meeting with a buyer that started with "I'm looking for documentaries and romantic comedies."
So once you've chosen a smart genre, you need your script. Whether you're writing it yourself, hiring someone to write it or going on a mission to find it, here are some key factors to keep in mind.
Number of locations and number of actors: The easiest film you can tackle is one actor in one location. Every location and every actor you add makes the project more complicated and costly. Just be aware of this.
Availability of locations: Exotic locations can provide great production value and make your film look more expensive. Do you have any unusual locations you can get access to? If so, find a way to work them into your script. On the flip side, be aware of locations that are likely to cause trouble. If your film takes place in the White House, you're going to need an ample budget to recreate those sets (unless your dad is golfing buddies with Barack Obama).
FX: Good effects are another way to elevate your production value, but (generally) they are expensive. Do you have a cheap avenue for good FX? A friend with skillz (which are even more impressive then "skills" I'm told)? A family connection who will give you a discounted rate? Don't write blindly without concern for costs.
Name talent: generally you're not focusing on talent at this point with the one exception being if you have (or can get) one or more "name" actors in your project (surely your dad golfs with someone famous, right?). We'll talk more about the value of names later, but it is considerable and the single greatest marketing element you can get. A good rule in low budget projects is that it's cheaper to get your big star for a supporting role over a couple of days than a lead role for the duration. If you can write (or find) a good supporting role that takes place in a limited number of locations, you can get the most bang for your buck. If you already have a lead on a possible name actor for your film, offer to get their insight and input to make sure you keep them engaged.
Write, rewrite and get feedback…then rewrite again: This is the easiest part of the process because you're not under the gun. When the clock officially starts, the money will begin flowing and every minute has a dollar value attached to it. Take as long as is necessary to make the script as good as possible. Make it great. Don't let the business side take a back seat. No matter how excited you are to get to things, don't take the position – "Let's go into pre-production and we can work on the script as we go." Why would you do that? Impatience is a dangerous motivator.
Once the script is great (or at least doesn't totally suck which is my personal threshold) and your core team is assembled, it's time to get the money to make your film. Part Three will focus on these aspects of the journey. See you next week. In the meantime – Write! Write like the wind!
Chris Hood is a writer, producer and director of such films as "Counterpunch" starring Danny Trejo and "Dirty Dealing 3D" with Michael Madsen and C. Thomas Howell. He is also owner of Robin Hood Films, a Las Vegas-based distribution company representing English language films around the world and operates a film blog at MovieIndustry.com. He's also dead sexy. (Mr. Hood denies any involvement in the creation of this mini-bio.)