By D.S. Warren
You’ve been a dreamer your whole life and movies were an escape to help you cope with existence...?
Or maybe your best memories involve seeing a movie on the big screen and it stuck with you?
You could even just be a casual fan who has a story to tell and the visual medium is the best way to accomplish that. There are numerous reasons those of us hear “the call to action” to become a film-maker. It’s a feeling you can’t shake or dodge.
It follows you everywhere you go.
Your friends stop watching movies with you because you overanalyze the ever-living crap out of them; rip them apart; and ramble at length about how you “could do a better job”.
You start reading about the experience, watching videos on how to execute a shot or what “lights, camera, action” even means. If you’re real fortunate, maybe you are able to get into a film-school or take a class or two on production. Whatever your route, you are committed to jump into the biggest art industry ever in recorded history.
There are a ton of articles out there that will tell you how to write a screenplay, find a producer, raise funds for your production…etc. In this article, however, I’m going to touch on something all of them avoid, and that is how completely hopeless this endeavor is going to be. But keep your chin up, kid, because there’s a light at the end of that dark tunnel.
Let’s go ahead and acknowledge the elephant in the room. Movies are fucking expensive. It doesn’t matter if you are doing a shoe-string indy feature, or a special effects extravaganza, you’re going to need quite a bit of lettuce for production to go off without a hitch. There’s equipment rental (or purchase), props, costumes, even if you can convince your cast and crew to work for free (good luck on that) you still have to feed them and provide protection from the elements.
All of this comes down to dollar signs and if you haven’t been paying attention to the world economy, you will find most people won’t part with their hard earned cash just to give it to an untested director working on their first production.
This is, for me, the hardest board to nail in the whole production process, especially if you are thousands of miles from any industry. It’s very intimidating and disheartening to a fresh director and the reason nearly all aspiring film-makers turn in their bullhorn and folding chair.
You can try and crowd-fund your project, but that avenue is over-saturated and everyday backers are being burned by productions taking the money and abandoning the project. Every time someone does that, the chances of you getting your movie funded diminish.
Right now you may be saying to yourself “I didn’t come to this article looking to get discouraged. Is there any good news?” Well, to that, I say, absolutely! See, the thing is this isn’t the ’90’s anymore (or any period preceding); everything is digital now and there are a couple of tricks to help get your project off the ground cheaply yet professionally.
A lot of aspiring film-makers I know have the same problem: Aesthetics. They don’t want to just make a movie; they want to LOOK like they are making a movie. They want to live the lifestyle under the attitude “if they fake it long enough, they will end up willing it into existence.”
That only happens in stories.
In reality, it takes humility and hard work to crack this industry from the outside. Those aspiring directors want to look legitimate and professional, and (to an extent) that is important. You can only hear the “are you filming Porno lmfao!” joke so many times before you want to rage; but you have to swallow your pride and muster up your confidence because you don’t need a $6K movie camera if you have a smart phone.
That’s right, the phone in your pocket (or in your hand) is all you need to film your production.
If you are immediately suspicious, that’s normal; it’s hard to wrap your head around it, but the quality of your smart phone’s camera is just as good as a movie camera.
The reason your cat videos don’t look like Dunkirk is merely lighting, filters, and editing software.
It’s a problem of aesthetics.
Need to capture audio closer to the source?
You can strap it to your actors like a white-trash lapel mic (wrap in cloth to avoid the “whooshing” sound every time they move). Again, you can adjust the audio in post.
Since most people own a smartphone, you can even ask your cast and crew if you can use their phones to record sound from different locations and because phones are so mundane, no one will question why one is in a scene (so long as you are not doing a period piece. If you are, hide it in your set design!).
This will definitely make the most of your budget, which you can use in other areas such as costume, location, craft services, crew and talent (more on that later).
A lot of people assume if you’re making a movie, you have a lot of money so they will try their best to get something out of it. Just remain confident and inform them that it’s simply not in the budget and you can go somewhere else (then watch them trip over themselves to backtrack).
The one place you don’t want to skimp is CRAFT SERVICES. A well fed cast and crew will do a better job. Now this doesn’t mean you have to go all out and have it catered, but if you know a good cook or a local eatery see if they will do it for you. We once had a barbecue joint give us a huge discount and all we had to do is mention them in the credits.
As for music for your film, the key phrase is “Royalty Free” there are a lot of very talented musicians out there just looking for exposure and as long as you credit them for it, they will let you use it. Unsigned bands are an option, but make sure the sound quality matches what you are striving for in your film. You don’t want to spend hours mastering your sound only to have a song that sounds like it was recorded in a public restroom.
CAST and CREW is where I always struggled the most. Many film-makers are blessed with talented individuals who will work for cheap or for free; I am not one of those film-makers. The thing is, everyone LOVES the IDEA of making a movie, but the minute they have to put in a strong effort, they fall apart. You get actors who haven’t even looked at the script stuttering through every scene, or crew that doesn’t want to put in more than a couple of hours on the production.
You end up juggling and replacing people as they quit or “call out” and it’s a huge headache. That’s why I prefer to go out of my way to make sure the cast and crew are paid at least something. Once you give them money (even if it’s just gas money) they will work harder to put in a better effort for you. I truly believe the bulk of your budget should go to the people working on it. You can cheat equipment, sets, costume…etc, but you can’t cheat people. If you get a reputation as someone who actually pays people that work for you, you will end up with a higher caliber of talent responding to your casting notices.
While we are on the subject of CASTING, keep auditions professional; even if it’s your friends or family. I ended up inadvertently hurting one of my friend’s feelings during a casual casting process and the friendship was never the same.
Treat them like you would treat a stranger coming into audition. Also, if you are asking anyone to take their clothes off at an audition, hang it up and quit. I don’t care if the most important scene in your movie requires nudity; you don’t ask people auditioning to expose themselves.
It is unprofessional, predatory, and you are taking advantage of them from a position of power. There is no place for that in the modern world and you will ultimately tarnish not only your reputation as a film-maker, but the reputation of everyone involved (not to mention all the damage you are doing to the person auditioning).
This is NOT a pornographic fantasy.
When it comes to hiring your crew, make sure they provide examples of their work. Few things will kill your dreams faster than getting the final edit or sound mix at the last minute only to discover it is absolutely terrible. Don’t just trust somebody when they tell you they know what they are doing. Make them prove it to you before you hire them. Though on a personal note, if you are directing, I would recommend being the editor as well. Not only does it give you more control over the final product, but it’s also a lot of fun.
Once your movie is finished and you are happy with the cut, now it is time to shop it around. Be sure to read the rules before you enter it into any festivals or contests.
There are a lot of assholes out there just itching to get your rights and cash in on your hard work; a lot of them hide this in the fine print. If you’re not sure, take to the internet and see what people who have dealt with them before feel about it. You can always count on the internet.
Furthermore, a lot of festivals have rules about “premiering”. Sundance will not count you as eligible if you have premiered your film anywhere else and there are a lot of other festivals with similar stipulations.
Do your homework.
Streaming services are hot right now and a lot, like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, are grabbing up everything they can. Don’t count on this, however, because the bubble will burst very soon. Again, be careful about your rights and consult a lawyer when those contracts start coming your way.
We live in interesting times. Big budget movies and shared cinematic universes are filling the cinemas and it’s only a matter of time before the audience gets exhausted. We are already seeing signs of that exhaustion as many mega-blockbusters fail to meet performance expectations or are torn apart by critics and audience members alike.
While this is bad news for the big studios, it is great news for the independent film-maker, as it will undoubtedly usher in a major indy revolution like the seventies or early nineties and production companies will be looking for a film just like yours. You just can’t get disheartened and give into despair.
Yes, it will be hard, yes it will seem like you lose more than you win, but no one ever became successful by not putting themselves out there and trying.
A failed attempt at making a movie is better than not attempting out of fear.
This is the time to strike, dear artists, so stop thinking about reasons not to and start punching through that wall. Your movie, no matter what, will find its audience.
I have faith in you.