Feature Filmmaking Advice

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Prior to getting my own features off the ground, I worked for an indie producer in New York City. I took the gig because I wanted to uncover the “secrets” to making movies. And after a few months, I ended up working in development – which pretty much meant it was my job to read screenplays and write reports about the material, called coverage.

When I wasn’t reading, most of my days were spent sitting in on meetings and taking notes. Given the fast paced grind of the development office, if you were one of the many writers, actors or filmmakers who sent us a query letters, headshots or your student films- odds are good that I opened some of your mail and put it on a stack. And that stack probably ended up in a filing cabinet. And? Well…

Listen. If you’re ambitious and you’re still waiting around for someone to “give you permission” to make your movies, I’m going to share a secret. There is no better feeling in the world than the day you stop sending query letters and instead, you start producing your own work (or if you’re an actor, you start casting yourself). For years and years, you have dreamed about getting your work on the big screen. You know you’re good. So why ask for permission?

Now I know this can be a scary transition. So I want to provide you with five tips to make becoming a super-hyphenate a little easier.

1. Have a well defined log-line for your project. Seriously. Most first time indie producers settle for a simple character driven story. But the story is always confusing. So here is the test, if you can not explain your story with the use of a simple log line, something is off. Fix the log line now. You’ll need it for your marketing later.

2. Everything in your screenplay costs money. So if your passion project is too expensive, write something based on locations in your neighborhood. Your true genius will come from your ability to tell a compelling story, not by how many expensive Special FX you can pack into your movie.

3. Ice, Snow, Rain, Sun, dogs, lighting bolts and children have always been a challenge to predict. If you include any of these elements in your story, I guarantee that setups that should only take minutes will take days. Avoid these elements if possible.

4. As soon as you decide to produce and possibly direct your movie, hire a seasoned Production Manager to work with you. They will read your script. They will tell you that your movie will cost way more than you think and they will help you alter the story to meet your budget constraints. Managing the budget is their job. Respect it. Then ask your PM if they know a great 1st AD. (They will!)

5. Hire a GREAT First Assistant Director. Not some film school kid either. Pay the money. Build a relationship. The First AD will be the general of your production. They will build off the Production Manager’s budget and schedule the movie. The 1st AD keeps the production on time.

These steps will provide you with a good starting point. Once you have your script, PM and your 1st AD, you will find that your project will start to gain momentum. Finish your feature and people will start sending you query letters. I guarantee it. If you liked this filmmaking article, sign up for my newsletter.

I wrote a screenplay, now what?

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So you wrote a screenplay? Now what?

I’ve been getting a lot of questions from folks who just finished their first screenplay… And like many, they don’t know what to do next.

That brings back memories!

Almost 10 years ago, when I was a fat, beer drinking, cheeseburger eating appliance store salesman in Pennsylvania, I too had just finished my first screenplay. And like many first time screenwriters, I had no idea what to do next. Besides, I thought just finishing a screenplay was enough of an accomplishment to get Hollywood knocking at my door.

Boy was I wrong!

It wasn’t until some years later, when I worked for a producer in New York City that I was able to see the other side of the business. So today, I want to reveal some secrets and share a little bit about what I learned.

In short, we received…

  1. screenplays from agents that sucked.
  2. screenplays from friends that sucked.
  3. screenplays from known writers that sucked.
  4. screenplays from friends of friends that sucked.
  5. unsolicited screenplays that were written in hand.
  6. unsolicited screenplays with artwork and movie poster designs.
  7. unsolicited screenplays with long, drawn out cover letters.
  8. screenplays that had no plot.
  9. screenplays that had a plot, but no character development.
  10. screenplays that had a gazillion spelling and grammatical errors.

And every-so-often, we received a script that was so AWESOME that we jumped up and down in excitement.

So assuming you finished your first screenplay and you can’t wait to get it into the hands of Hollywood producers, here are my suggestions on what to do next:

  1. Enter the script in screenplay contests.
  2. Do you know anyone friendly with a Hollywood producers, agents or managers?
  3. If not,  I reccomend you print some business cards and then, learn how to produce.
  4. Do you have any friends who know up-and-coming Hollywood actors?
  5. Write another script.

That last piece of advice – write another script – that comes from experience.

Many writers put all of their focus on a current screenplay, that they fail to expand their body of work. Writing a stack of screenplays is like creating inventory for your store. The more products you have on the shelf, the more you can eventually sell.

Since agents and managers and producers make their living by finding good material, it is in your best interest to have some good material. Don’t send anything out, unless it it is amazing. Then assuming you capture the interest of a Hollywood Heavyweight, you’ll be ready to take your career to the next level.