Category Archives: Tips/Advice

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.

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.

So you wanna be an independent film maker? Let Sundance put things into perspective for you.

If you want to avoid the studio system, explore the world of independent film making, here are some statistics/facts from this year’s Sundance Film Festival – one of the largest and most prestigious film festivals in the world. I’m by no means discouraging independent films. I absolutely love independent films and feel like the studios are putting out more and more garbage every year. However, independent film making is a difficult and risky industry, and I hope these numbers allow you to have a bit of perspective when it comes to this grueling industry.

– Over 5000 films were submitted into Sundance.  Under 300 we chosen

– 38 out of 300 films were sold to distributors.  28 Features, 10 documentaries.

– 4 films were sold for more than 3 million dollars. 2 of these were sold as remake rights

– 2 out of those 4 films sold for more than their budget.

– All the films that sold for $750K or more had cast that previously played leading roles in studio films.

To summarize, of all the films submitted into Sundance, 0.0076% earned revenue, and 0.0004% made a profit. That isn’t to say that the 0.0076% won’t go on to make money, but the point is that if you want to pursue independent film making, the odds are definitely against you if you rely on festivals to recoup costs and make profit.

Click here to see which films got sold to distributors.

Casting Before Financing???

The biggest obstacle that any independent film producer faces when producing a movie always comes down to financing. How do you get money? Even if your project is amazing, you still need to reach out to the people  with money. How do you accomplish this…especially if you are not an established film producer? I asked a former film producer-turned agent, and he offered me some interesting advice. If you are not established and have not built relationships with financiers, agents or managers,  one of the best things you can do is HIRE A CASTING DIRECTOR. ……..Huh? Yes, the first person to spend your money on is a casting director. A casting director has first degree relationships with all the agencies. If she likes the script, she’s going to work her hardest to get the best talent attached to the project. To do this, the first line of attack are the agents. In addition to a plethora of actors, they also have access to financiers, and if they believe the project is good, it’s in their best interest to help you get it financed. In other words, casting directors is a way to “pay” to get access to agents and, in essence, get access to financing. The agents will also help get great talent attached to your project, which again, will attract financing.

The Do’s and Dont’s of Pitching

Brevity is beauty

DO Try and find ways to keep your pitch as brief as possible without eliminating pertinent information that will capture your audience. Think of it like telling your friend about an awesome movie you just saw.

 

DON’T worry about being overly thorough. Your only objective is to captivate your audience with your story and character(s). Once you have done that, your audience will ask you questions and it is at that point where you can divulge into other details of your idea.

 

Props

Unless it is absolutely imperative to convey a certain visual image, you shouldn’t need to bring any props. What happens is that your prop becomes your crutch. You shouldn’t need diagrams, objects, pictures, or power point presentations to pitch a good story. If you require these things, your idea is probably not very good. You should be able to pitch your project to anyone at any given time, at any given place.

 

Adapt – Have other ideas prepared.

One of the important skills with pitching is being able to adapt in the room. A lot of times, through unforeseen circumstances, an executive may tell you that your idea has been pitched already, or is not something they are looking for. Your job as a pitcher is to be able to adapt and find a way to give the person at the other end of the table what he or she wants. If the rest of your ideas are half decent, and pitched briefly (and you’re not a complete arrogant jerk) chance are, the executives will want to hear more. That’s their job; to find new ideas and new material. You won’t have very many opportunities, so you might as well make the best of it. The hit TV show Rugrats was the 8th idea pitched during a pitch meeting. The executives passed on the previous seven.

 

Leave the business to the professionals

DO have an idea of what your budget may be, or what marketing strategies you might use. It’s never a bad idea to conjure up a budget for your own personal knowledge…but

 

DON’T bring marketing materials or budgets to the meeting. These sorts of things will not help you sell your project and this will all be re-worked by the studio should your project get picked up. Neither budgets nor marketing materials will help you in closing a development deal with a studio or production company.

 

Attaching talent

If you have the means and ability, DO attach a well-known, accomplished talent            to your project (ie. Lead actor, Director)

 

DON’T make a cast or director lists. Chances are, your list will be similar to their list, and it will not help you sell your project. It will not impress the studios if you start naming A-list actors or directors that you “wish” will be attached to your project.

 

Enthusiasm & Passion

DO show enthusiasm and passion for your project. This may seem like common sense, however, people do not realize how far passion travels across to your audience. Most of the time, your audience is not only interested in the project, but they are more interested in the person behind the project. You could have the next Oscar winning project, but if you don’t show your passion it will not sell. Feel free to stand and use the room when delivering your pitch. Look happy and thrilled to be delivering you pitch (even if it’s a horror project).

 

DON’T put on a show, or a sales presentation. Over-enthusiasm can be a bad thing. Remember, in their minds, if they want to buy your project, they’ll have to work with you on a regular basis, and being an over-the-top showboater might sway them not to. When you give your pitch you want to feel like you’re telling your friends about a movie you saw on the weekend.

 

Leave-Behinds

Leave-behinds are 8-10 page documents outlining your project. They usually including a synopsis of your story, target audience, summary of characters. Whatever you do, DO NOT give them the leave behind before you start pitching. It’s called a leave behind for a reason, not a “give first”. After you finish your pitch, you may learn that what the buyers want is not outlined in your leave behind. Or you may learn that the weakest part of your pitch is the one thing you emphasize in your leave behind.

 

TIP: Leave behind for TV shows should show two key things: Character breakdown (detailed and interesting), and “where is this story going”. Show a season arc, or a series arc. They like to think about longevity and they want to know that you have thought about it too.

Verbal Presentation

DON’T read from a piece of paper or cue cards. Executives hate this. If you know your project well enough, you shouldn’t need to read. This disconnects you from the buyer. Remember, the executives are not just buying the project, they are buying YOU. Therefore, you need to connect with them, and moving your eyes/head back and forth between a piece of paper does not accomplish this.

 

DO engage in a conversation. Pitches should not be presentations. Every pitch is a job interview. The need to be assured that they can work with you no matter how great the project is. The best pitches are the ones that transform into conversations. This is the best way for executives to get to know you, and to get excited about your project.

 

 

Know your project but be open minded and flexible

DO show your audience that you are creatively flexible and easy to work with.  Nine times out of ten, when a studio or network buys your project, they are going to tear it a part. Part of the pitching process involves selling yourself to your audience and showing them that you will be a good partner, despite whether or not your project will sell. At the same time, convey that you know your project in detail and that you have your own personal vision.

 

DON’T refute suggestions given by your audience. You need to show that you are not only open to creative suggestions, but that you appreciate them. BUT, whatever you do, DON’T use the phrase “whatever you want it to be”. If an executive asks you a creative question, you tell them what you feel is the best answer, because that is what they are looking for.