By Chris Hood
(This is Part Seven of an ongoing series to help educate aspiring filmmaker on the process of making their first film. Previous articles in this series can be found at BleedingCool.com and MovieIndustry.com)
In virtually every case, location decisions will have a tremendous bearing on your film. On the macro scale, you need to decide the best overall area (usually city) in which to shoot and on the micro scale you'll be looking at the available places you can possibly film in that area. Usually, these two factors will work hand-in-hand. Location scouting can be local, regional, national or even international. The elements that need consideration are suitability, convenience and cost.
Out of necessity, cost is often a major limiting factor precluding many, if not most, scouting options right out of the gate. If you have a studio budget, you can fly around the world looking for the best locations. Hell, you can even shoot on five different continents when you land the next James Bond film. However, for now, if your 401k is financing the project, you might be limited to an hour or two drive from your crappy apartment…or even the few miles you can safely jet around on your scooter.
The unfortunate trend for first time filmmakers is the "I'm going to shoot it here" mentality. "Here" in this case, is almost always his home town. On the surface, this makes sense and in some cases it may be the best decision, but serious thought and consideration needs to go into this. There are definitely advantages to shooting in your own community. There are usually plenty of friends, family and even business associates willing to help. You can often get deals when you're local, though in most places not used to film production, you can get deals as well even if you're from somewhere else. If the investors are local, a lot of filmmakers want to keep the production near the money…or that's the story they tell. Yet despite these benefits, it's still often more pragmatic to shoot elsewhere, yet many filmmakers don't do it. Why? Because the biggest reason for a filmmaker to shoot in his home town is the worst one of all – he wants to be a big shot.
Filmmakers living in L.A. will go back to their home towns in Arkansas, Idaho or Maine to shoot their movies despite the fact that they are living in the city with, by far, the best possible resources to make their film. Now, yes, there are times when this makes sense for some of the reasons stated above, but it almost always comes down to the 'big shot' factor. The pros have to be weighed against the cons. I understand back in Boise your mom is willing to prepare the meals for free and you can take over the pool hall you played at as a kid and shoot to your heart's content. Cool. Great. But what are the cons? How many people are you going to fly back to Boise from L.A. or elsewhere and put them up in hotels? How much more is that going to cost versus actually paying someone else's mom to prepare your meals and give a pool hall a few hundred bucks to shoot there? Or are you simply going to settle for lesser, local talent because stroking your ego is more important? Sadly, this is a common mistake.
"We'll cast locally" is usually a lethal decision. Sure, no airfare, no hotel, no per diems. The problem is your cast and crew will be many degrees inferior. You can get amazing actors in L.A., Chicago and New York for very little money. There are some good actors in secondary markets. Perhaps the biggest problem small films have is bad acting and there is (usually) no excuse for it. "Local" is good for supporting roles and bit players. You may even find a gem in the town you're shooting at, but unless you're setting the bar for "good enough" pretty low when it comes to talent, don't skimp on this. It certainly will show on screen.
Another justification for shooting in your home town goes something like this – "Yeah, well, when the film is done, we can show it locally at the cinema and since we shot it here, we'll have a huge turn-out and pretty much everyone in town will come to see it and we'll make a bunch of money that way." Of course, what they leave out is – "And I'll get to be there and be a big shot!" The fact is, this is simply not a viable business model. It can work on a small scale. You might even be able to turn a small profit after you consider the costs associated with it. Probably not, but maybe. This should in no way be a deciding factor.
Have you really even looked at other options? Does your state offer film incentives? What about the next state over? Yes, I realize this advice may have no bearing on your project that you're shooting for $20k, but these articles aren't for you. A $20k project is a hobby. It's a resume. You can try to sell it. You can hope to sell it. You may hit the lottery and actually get it out there a little, but it's not a viable business model. It's not a film you should be making with the hopes of selling it any more than me pooping on a canvas and trying to sell it as art. I might sell it, but that's not the intention…I do it because it's fun (I presume it would be fun as I don't actually poop on canvases…just the front porches of competing filmmakers). If you have a real budget, around $100k or more, it very well might make sense to look shooting elsewhere. Usually it does. If you can get a 25%-35% refund or credit, that's a significant chunk of money back in your (and your investors') pockets. Do you really think you'll be saving $30k shooting in your hometown?
Consider all the options. Crunch the numbers. Check your ego at the door. This is business. If you've done as I suggested and made sure you have a business person working with you on this project, this is another area where he can wear the big boy pants and make the smart decision.
Obviously where to base the production can be mandated to some extent by the needs of the script. Most small films are written without difficult location demands. If your story take place in a cabin in the woods, a middle-class neighborhood or a church, you'll have options just about anywhere. If the story takes place on a yacht, in a casino or dilapidated mansion (try Detroit), this is going to require a bit more effort to get what you need…unless it was already arranged when you wrote or acquired the script.
Another very real consideration is the importance of "production value". A slasher film set in a cabin in the woods screams "low budget". The same slasher film set on a cruise ship suggests big bucks. Regardless of whether either is true, the hard fact is that any offers you get for your film won't be based on what you actually spent on the movie, but on the perception of what you spent on the film. This is one of those unfair, dirty realities of distribution so find the most impressive, "big money" locations possible. In fact, this can be such an important factor that it might be worth reworking an entire production around or even changing projects entirely. If you can get access to someplace unusual like a mall, an amusement park, the White House or the Hustler sex toy factory (I don't really know if there is one, but it would be a GREAT location!) find a way to work that into your story. Fancy window dressing can make your film stand out considerably. What are the unique locations in the area? If you can get them, use them. It doesn't matter if there's no revolving restaurant location in the script – work it in. Those two characters who are having a chat in a coffee shop can just as easily be having the same talk at the top of a lighthouse and it looks WAY cooler and feels so money!
Even if your film isn't big doesn't mean it can't FEEL big. Good location selection is one of the best ways to pull this off.
Next up, grasshoppers, is the casting process.
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.)