Monthly Archives: February 2011

Testing, Testing, and more Testing.

TESTING is one of the most over-looked, but under rated tasks that is executed by a director or producer. Testing is done in pre-production and it’s exactly what it sounds like. The purpose is to gather your creative team with your talent and test how the different visual creative elements look on camera. This includes costumes, make-up, hair, production design and even rehearsal. This process is absolutely essential and beneficial for a number of reasons.

1. Gives your creative team an opportunity to make sure their vision looks the way they want it to look on camera. Often times creative problems will arise and you don’t want to be sorting out these sort of issues during production. This is fairly obvious.

2. Allows your actor(s) to interact with the artists and build a good rapport with them before production. This is extremely important as you do not unseen personality clashes to occur during production.

3. Allows your director to make sure his creative team is on the same page as him/her.

3. Be sure to take pictures of hair, make-up and costumes especially after the actor and director has approved of them. As a producer, this protects you if creative disputes arise during production. For example, if you’re on set ready to shoot, and the director is happy with an actor’s make-up but the actor is not, you can use the previously taken photo, which was approved by the unhappy actor, to help you deal with the actor.

Make sure you give yourself plenty of time – at least one month – before shooting starts in order to allow your creative team to test with the talent.

What is “Capability”?

Capability is the a term used in movie-marketing. This describes a film’s ability – as an idea alone – to generate interest within it’s target audience. In other words, if someone were to give you the logline or the overall concept of the film, would you be interested in seeing it without knowing what it looked like or who it starred? Most high-concept movies have high capability. A comedy about a lawyer who gets placed with a curse that prevents him from lying has high capability. A remake of Superman has high capability.

TV Hierarchy Of The Writing Staff

For scripted television shows, the writing staff is paramount, and often large in size. They can range in sizes from four writers, all the way to twenty writers. Comedy shows, and talk shows often have more writers than dramas.

Showrunner: On the TV credits, the showrunner will receive an executive producer (EP) credit. Often times, he/she will be the last EP mentioned. In TV world, the showrunner is king; unlike the film world where the director is king.

Executive Producer –  These are usually upper level senior writers with lots of writing experience. The help the showrunner in running the writer’s room, and developing the series.

Supervising Producer

Producer

Co-Producer

Story Editor – This title often given to the senior staff writer.

Staff Writer – Once the story is broken and laid out by the writers room and approved by the showrunner, often times the staff writer will be assigned to type up the first draft of the script.

Writers’ Assistant – This person does not take part in the story creating process. Their job, for the most part, is be present in the writers’ room and take notes while the writers are developing story.

Writers’ PA – Much like a production assistant, this person is in charge of small accounting issues, getting lunches and coffees for the writers.

What is a “Beat”?

“Beat” is a term used a lot when developing or explaining a story. Beats are extremely important in communicating the direction of a story and to keep a story moving. It is a piece of information that can be conveyed in a quick moment, a sequence, or in an entire scene that moves the story forward. Often times when writers are trying to figure out their story, they will use what’s called a beat sheet. A beat can often be described in one sentence. For example, “The big bad wolf blows the straw house down.” This helps the writer determine what’s important in the story and what moments are needed in order to compel and audience.

 

Microbudget Films, Contained Thrillers, Found-Footage Horrors

I recently met with Steven Schneider; the producer of “Paranormal Activity”. After 10 minutes of engaged conversation, about a dozen light bulbs went on in my head. I’m hoping after reading this post, a few light bulbs of your own will turn on.

First, a little bit of background. Steven is a huge fan of horror movies. He’s watched them all, studied them, and has even written books on them. With Paranormal, Steven did not act as a producer in a traditional manner. He had a development deal with Paramount and Oren Peli, the writer and director, had given him the film to act as a director’s reel. In other words, the film had already been made, and Steven was not involved in the development or the production of it. Steven said that it was so scary that he had difficulties sleeping at night. That was enough for him to want to attach himself to the project.  Not once did he felt critical of the production quality. To make a long story short, Steven and his colleagues sold it to Paramount and it became the most profitable movie in world grossing over $300 million worldwide. I will save the details of this story for another posting.

The point of the article is this: The ability to make high quality content has never been easier. You have access to amazing affordable cameras. You can edit digitally in your own home off your lap top. You can distribute your film online with a click of a couple buttons. This all presents the industry, especially young filmmakers, with an opportunity to make  microbudget films (films under $1 million) and present a finished product to buyers, which is much more appealing than undeveloped projects.

Currently, it has never been harder to get a movie made and distributed. The biggest, and sometimes the only hurdle in the past has always been the cost. Nowadays, this is no longer an excuse. If you have the right story, you can essentially film a movie for less than 5 figures. So the challenge now becomes finding the right story. Oren told a story that had two main characters, and two supporting characters with two scenes each – four actors total. He shot the film in his own house – one location. He shot it using essentially no camera movement. Oren also edited Paranormal Activity on his laptop in his home office. With this in mind, I challenge you to set aside your traditional feature passion project for now, and develop a contained story that has no more than 5 actors, and takes place in no more than 2 locations. You can choose whatever genre you like, however, I strongly recommend horror because the audience is easy to reach, loyal, and don’t care about A-list actors. Also, with most successful horror films, the emphasis is place first on concept (it’s ability to scare), then on story. In all the rest of the genres, story is typically paramount. But, if you can crack this formula and be successful with other genres…PLEASE be my guest. If not, stick to the contained thrillers. Try and think of a high concept. Typically, the lower the budget, the higher the concept needs to be in order to gain attention from buyers. Having restrictions on locations and talent actually forces you to be more creative. I strongly encourage it, if anything, for the sake of the exercise.

To get you in the right mind-set, let’s look at some notable contained, high concept movies. First you have your “found-footage” horrors like The Blair Witch Project, and Paranormal Activity. Both movies shot for under 6 figures, both extremely successful in the box office. Another notable film that I personally love is “The Disappearance of Alice Creed”. This critically acclaimed film told a kidnapping story with three actors in essentially one location. In, “Phone Booth”, the lead actor spends the entire time in a phone booth. I think you get the idea.

If you have a great story, or an amazing concept, people will look at it. I am a firm believer of that. Having that story already produced only decreases the barriers to these people which is exactly what happened to Oren Peli. He created a unique, outstanding film, and found the right passionate person to champion his project. So go and develop your contained story, and then MAKE IT!!!

The All-Important Composer

Music can dictate the entire tone of a film and is instrumental convey the right emotion for your audience. It’s always a gratifying feeling when you’re in the editing bay and you add music after working with “music-less” sequences. When hiring a composer, the first thing you must determine is the tone and emotion of your film. Is it light-hearted, ominous, goofy, suspenseful, solemn, or joyful? It may be helpful to have a couple of comparable movies as examples. Once you determine this, the next thing you want to consider is what instrumentation you want to use. Which types of instruments will do the best job in conveying your tone? Is it an orchestra, electronic keyboard, acoustic guitar, acoustic piano? If you are not sure, then have your candidates provide examples. These days, with the advancement in technology, composers should be able to provide a diverse array of digitally generated instruments in a short period of time. With this in mind, feel free to give your candidates a clip of your project and have them provide examples based on what you have conveyed to them. Once you have chosen your composer makes sure you ALWAYS ask for mock-ups and demos during the composition process. Never wait until the last cut, and never be left in the dark during the composition process. This should be agreed upon before you hire them. If they are unwilling to provide demos or mock-ups, DO NOT hire them.

Keep It Down On Set!!

Whether you are producer or director, one of the biggest mistakes you can do on a set is to publicly give a direction or a note. Particularly with directors, if you need to give a direction to your actor, you always want to get up of your directors chair and approach the actor and give him the note face to face so that nobody else can hear it. The days of the directors sitting on high chairs with mega phones are over. Actors are put in the most vulnerable position on the set out of anyone and you as a director want to make them feel secure in their craft. Never scream out a note. Never give a direction that everyone can hear. Then what happens is people start to judge the actor and the performance and because the actor is aware of this, it will undoubtedly affect his/her performance.

Same thing goes for key crew members. If you have directions or instructions, always pull them aside and tell them privately. This will always make for a better tone on set because it makes the crew feel that their work is respected and valued. TRUST ME!

A studio film director once told me, the best directors and producers are the ones that are able to EMPOWER all the creative people they work with in a way that makes them all feel like the project belongs to them.