Lessons Learned as a Director

Over the past four years, Jenn Page has directed four Independent feature films. Having worked with some of Hollywood’s top talent, she stopped by Filmmaking Stuff to share her lessons learned as a director.

As a director you are completely responsible for everything on your movie set, one way or another. Everything…

Of all that you deal with, the hardest part of being a director is not getting final cut of your baby. You have put in all the work to make the writer’s script the best it can be, you have hired the most talented cast possible (or even more likely you’ve been handed a cast that you didn’t pick and have had to work hard to make them brilliant), you’ve dealt with numerous fires on set and managed to get through without anyone dying.

Unless you are funding the movie, music video, TV show or web series yourself – Or if you have Ron Howard status, you are not getting final cut. Even if the paper says you are getting final cut, you are not.

Directing Lesson 1 – Know What You Want

Only shoot exactly what you want to be edited in to the movie. Don’t get the ‘just in-case’ shot or ‘since we have it here’ shot. Know exactly how you want the scene to be edited and only shoot that. And if you don’t know how to edit the scene, it is time to learn because you need to be editing on set, in your head.

That takes confidence in your work and decisions, but as a director you should be confident (even when you are wrong). If you have any say in the matter, surround yourself with talent (cast & crew) and listen to their advice, needs and opinions. But in the end it is YOUR name on the project so you have to take responsibility from minute one (and minute one is choosing the right script) and never stop taking responsibility.

Jenn Page Camera

Directing Lesson 2 – Be Diplomatic On Set

It is harsh when you can’t choose your team and you get an argumentative personality on set. It really halts production to have to constantly explain your reasoning to your DP or Producers. It also kills your morale and passion for the film. As soon as you start trying to please the producer (or DP) to keep the peace, you get stuck with a mishmash of ideas that are half yours and half someone else’s and not strong in any voice.

You will always end up with a boring movie if there is no clear point of view.

Directing Lesson 3 – Radiate Optimism

Maybe you’ve hit day 12 with 6 more days to go, and you would rather tell the producer to stick the camera where the sun doesn’t shine while you go find the jelly donuts than continue to feel disrespected. You are not the first director to decide that you want to quit now and show them how much they needed you. However, the one steady truth remains: your name will be on the film or tarnished by giving up, so you can’t. You have to be the one person on set who stays positive, motivated, and keeps marching through no matter how ridiculous the set becomes.

In future articles I will dig deeper into the director/producer and director/DP relationships, but the bottom line is no matter what is happening on set, you need to be the one making the choices. So even when your DP insists on a closeup but you know you don’t want one in that moment then you have to trust your gut and move on. If you film that closeup to make him happy, I guarantee the producers will want to use that shot when it’s time to edit. Don’t even give them the opportunity.

Directing Lesson 4 – Go Easy On Coverage

When we are first starting out as directors we often think coverage means shooting anything and everything we can in a scene. Master, medium, medium closeup, closeup, extreme close up, try from this angle, maybe put the camera over here and shoot from this angle… The list could go on and on. You don’t need all that. Stop wasting precious time on set. When you mentally edit the film as you are going you know exactly what you need to make the scene be impactful.

Many of you think that you have done this in advance with your storyboards, but even if you have had the rare luxury of a storyboard artist on your film you will rarely have the luxury of time to shoot everything as you planned it. Until you are making big studio films where you get to work on one scene all day, you are in the land of independent features where your storyboards, shot lists, and any thoughts of how the day will go are thrown out the window.

Jenn Page - Blocking The Shot

There is never enough time. Never. Being able to edit while you shoot will actually give you much lost time back.

Directing Lesson 5 – Get The Performance

The digital age has created an “It’s not film” mentality. However, we should always shoot like we are shooting film. Make specific choices and don’t waste resources shooting too much. Okay, okay, I am the first person to say “just keep rolling” when on set, but not because I am not sure about what I want, quite the opposite. I keep rolling so my actors can keep working without the break in momentum. When an actor is in the zone, calling cut can actually be detrimental.

Letting the camera roll long enough to get the performance is still editing. You know you are close to getting the performance you need from them so you keep letting them move through it until the scene is nailed. Now that you have the performance and angle you need, you can move on. There’s no need to get anything else, no matter how much the DP might really want another take for himself. You got what you need, move on.

Directing Lesson 6 – Remember Good Collaborators

I have worked with some of the most giving, talented, open-minded, collaborative, hard-working people on the planet. Producers, DP’s, writers, gaffers, grips, sound mixers, actors, and beyond. I have people that I just adore and will take with me to the top of the mountain. Those are the people you want to have around you on every set, even if you can only get one in, having that person there to back your decisions or just be a lunch buddy, will help make you a better (more relaxed) director.

Jenn Page with Corey Feldman

If you are lucky enough to find a DP that you work well with and they are also an editor, then you are really in for a treat! The two of you will move through shots like they are warm butter. I rarely have to deal with anyone who isn’t a team player, but it does happen. It will happen to you at some point, and when anything is wrong or off in the finished film, I promise all eyes, fingers, and toes are pointed at you.

– – –
Jenn Page has been lucky enough to direct 4 Independent feature films in the past two years, working with some of Hollywood’s top talent. The mission of her production company Luminave Films, is to create great projects for women to star in, produce, direct, and even crew on. Since it’s inception she has directed, written, and or produced nearly a 100 projects including web series, music videos, and award-winning profit-generating short films for, by, and starring women. Click here to find out more about Jenn Page.

YouTube Rentals?

Since originally writing this article, YouTube Rentals has become part of Google Play.

But if you’re one of the many independent feature filmmakers trying to navigate the ever changing world of digital self distribution (so you can still make a living by making independent movies). . .

I have an AWESOME solution for you.

And No. I’m not talking about iTunes and their indie movie selection mechanisms. Nor am I talking about Hulu’s wonderful platform.

But RATHER, I am referring to an even bigger player. One that can’t be ignored.

YES! I’m talking about Google. Specifically, I’m referring to YouTube and their partner program.

With YouTube, filmmakers are able to upload movies and expand reach. And this amazing VOD outlet will provide short filmmakers with an awesomely cool way to generate revenue.

Here are 5 reasons why you should check out YouTube:

  1. Familiarity – Most people are already conditioned to watch YouTube videos.
  2. Community – Your fan base can subscribe to your profile, get updates, make comments and tell you how much they love you or hate you.
  3. Trust – People trust YouTube.
  4. Marketplace – Like iTunes and Amazon, you already have a gazillion people on the website. Just being at the party increases your odds for revenue.
  5. Communication – When you make a short film, how cool will it be to email your list and say “check my movie out. It’s on YouTube.”

So if you’re interested in making your content available for rent on YouTube, you can find more info by following this link to their partner program.

Asking For Filmmaking Advice

5th floor lecture hall at Baruch College. Take...

Asking for Filmmaking Advice Image via Wikipedia

When I was working to produce my first feature, I had no idea what I was doing. I knew I wanted to see my name in the credits, but didn’t know how to do it.

Fortunately, I also had the phone number of someone who had traveled the same path years before. I contacted this person and asked for advice.

When venturing into new areas of understanding, it is essential to seek out advice from people who have real-world experience. Asking the wrong person for advice may create conversational fluff, but won’t get you what you need. For example, if you wanted to learn how to develop six-pack abs, would it make sense to ask an obese person for advice?

Remember, just because someone has a title or education doesn’t mean they are fully qualified to help you. Find the people living what they teach. Sure, it’s possible an obese person may have a fitness education; but based on experience, they aren’t living it. A person’s advice is limited by their experience.

Later, when I was looking for ways to self distribute an indie feature on the internet, I asked a former studio executive for advice. It was a mistake. After a long conversation, I found out the “expert” had never made an independent feature or any money self-distributing an independent feature. Yet, he was happy to provide advice.

So whenever you’re asking for filmmaking advice, be careful!

Independent Film Financing

United States one-dollar bill

Today, I’m going to offer yet another bit of perspective on the whole question of how to raise money for movies.

As you may or may not know, independent film funding can be a little overwhelming. If you’ve ever dabbled in the business side of making a movie, you know what I mean. The first time I heard people talk about writing a business plan or offering a private placement memorandum, I suddenly felt like I was on another planet. And if you’re like most filmmakers, you would much rather focus on actually getting your movie made, instead of cold calling rich and successful people to set up random pitch meetings.

  • So, the first challenge you have in the world of film finance is: How do I find investors for my movie?
  • The second challenge is: How will my feature film provide enough ROI (return on investment) for my investor?

Assuming you’ve followed some of my previous advice on creating relationships with rich and successful people, even if you do make a favorable impression on a few rich folks, your potential film investors may still shy away from making an investment in your project. Why? Because without star talent, a known director, a film distribution outlet and an experienced crew – it’s very tough to answer the important question of ROI.

Your potential investors want to know how you plan on spending their money, how you plan on getting their money back, and when. Can you provide your investors with this information? If not, then you can understand why independent film financing, especially for your first feature, can be a pain in the butt.

However, having worked as an account executive for one of the biggest investment banks in the world, I would like to share some thoughts and end today’s article on a positive note. If you can come up with a plan that at least attempts to answer the question of ROI – then you’re in the ball park. While I can’t say it’s common, there are a few potential investors out there, for which their excess cash sometimes burns a hole in their pocket. These folks will assess the potential for gain and loss, and despite the risk (which you will always disclose and never hide!), they will still choose to do business with you.

I have a friend (who I’ll interview in a few weeks) – but anyway, he made a short film that went viral on the internet. One day he gets a call from a random multimillionaire who says he has always wanted to produce a movie. Suffice it to say, my buddy is now in pre-production on his first independent feature film.

Stranger things have happened. What’s important is that you keep pushing forward!

– – –

If you are wondering how to get money for your movie – Almost every resource will tell you that you need a business plan. Very few resources will tell you how to actually go out, find prospective investors, qualify them, contact them, get a meeting and build a relationship.

Since getting money for movies was such a frustrating experience for me, I spent the last few months creating: The Independent Producer’s Guide To Financing Your Movie. In it, YOU will gain valuable insider experience so you can avoid my past mistakes, find investors and make your movie. To learn more CLICK HERE

Prepping Your Film For Distribution

I originally published this article with The Independent, a great resource for filmmakers.

Picture this! By some miracle to end all miracles, born of equal parts luck and blind determination, you’ve managed to rise above the never-ending barrage of questions from “concerned” friends and family who’ve always thought your talk about making movies was reckless. You’ve put together a cast and crew, refined your script, found some financing and in the process, you’ve even figured out how to ignore all your significant other’s not-so-subtle hints that a career selling life insurance really wouldn’t be that bad. To be honest, looking back, even you aren’t really sure how you pulled it off. Yet, despite all of the concerns and self doubt, you’ve somehow managed to make the impossible possible. You’ve made your first feature film! And, by definition, you’re finally a real filmmaker.

So, as your significant other drinks celebratory champagne with your family, friends and whatever members of your cast and crew are still speaking to you at the wrap party, you and I both know there is one nagging thought still rattling around in the back of your mind. It’s the same thought shared by every independent feature filmmaker. You’re asking yourself, how am I going to distribute this thing?

As a feature filmmaker, your distribution strategy will fall into one of two categories. Either your movie will be picked up, marketed and sold through various outlets by one of those distribution companies you read about in the trades, or you will sell it yourself. This is the major difference between traditional distribution and self-distribution. Regardless of which path you take, there are certain fundamental steps you must complete to ensure the film makes a smooth transition from the edit suite to the marketplace.

Preparing to Find a Distributor

When finding a distributor, many filmmakers partner with sales representatives, agents, lawyers or consultants to help get their movies seen and, hopefully, sold. It is during this time that the representative will often furnish the filmmaker with an extensive checklist of deliverables that include (with some variation): the movie master, talent agreements, high resolution digital photos for use in promotion, a credit lock, talent bios and press kits, a copyright registration form, chain of title and just about every other legal clearance the distributor can think of to minimize liability. One area where first-time filmmakers often stumble is in properly securing the rights to each and every bit of music included in their flick.

According to Richard Abramowitz of Abramorama, a marketing and distribution consulting firm that specializes in independent films, “Sometimes filmmakers include a song in the background that can’t be removed from the dialogue track, or a character sings along to the song in scene. If the music isn’t fully cleared, then the filmmaker either has to pay [for the rights] or cut the scene entirely.” As you can imagine, finding one of these errors can significantly delay, or even derail, your potential distribution deal.

Because of these surprises and to further mitigate risk exposure, most distributors will require Errors and Omissions insurance. According to Mark Litwak, of the Beverly Hill’s based law firm Mark Litwak & Associates, “E&O insurance is malpractice coverage for filmmakers. It protects the insured from liability arising from negligence in not securing the rights, permissions and clearances needed to exploit the film.”

Assuming the movie reaches a deal and all the elements are delivered, the filmmaker’s involvement in the project is minimized as the distributor assumes control of the marketing, public relations, packaging, duplication and quality control. From there, the distributor will get the movie into their marketplace pipeline, which may involve anything from movie theatres to any number of straight-to-DVD outlets.

Preparing for Self-distribution

Distribution as we know it is changing. With models like video-on-demand and fulfillment services becoming more and more integrated with not-so-independent conglomerates like Amazon.com, the options for reaching a global marketplace is wide open. Sooner than you think, all content may very well be available with the push of a button. While the prospect of cutting out the middleman is exciting to the independent filmmaker, as your own distributor, you now bear sole responsibility for both the success of your movie and the safeguarding of your personal liability should any legal issues arise. To many, this means purchasing E&O insurance, converting the movie website into a sales funnel, capturing leads, creating the DVD cover art and finding ways to efficiently reach your target audience at a minimal cost.

Stacy Schoolfield, whose film Jumping Off Bridges (view the trailer here) was successfully self-distributed in 2007 after a great festival run, says, “Self distribution provides more control over the film. Where you might only end up with 3 percent of traditional distribution profits, you could end up with much more through self-distribution.”

Stacy, who produced and managed distribution of the film, said her strategy involved showing Jumping Off Bridges, ultimately about a group of friends struggling through adolescence, to carefully selected niche audiences, building a mailing list and making the movie readily available on her website. “At our first screening at SXSW [the South by Southwest Film Festival], there were people from the local Teen Suicide Prevention/Mental Health awareness group. They came up to us and said they could use the film in their outreach and education. It was a new idea for us, and after more research, we found out that there were lots of groups like that across the country and we started reaching out to them. You have to know who your audience is and then pull out all the stops to reach them.”

Thanks to the Internet, finding the appropriate audience is becoming increasingly more efficient. According to Dana LoPiccolo-Giles, managing director of CreateSpace, which provides filmmakers with direct access to the Amazon marketplace, “Films with a specific focus may see higher sales due to niche audiences and less market competition. Some keys to online sales success are having an attractive, effective cover design that will look professional/interesting as a small thumbnail on web searches. Filmmakers should choose online keywords carefully, and make sure the name of the title will help the film be found in searches. Often a subtitle as part of the name can make it more specific and easily searchable.”

Regardless of whether you plan on selling directly to your marketplace or chose to take the time-honored distribution route, getting the appropriate releases, licenses, and clearances during pre-production will only help your movie make a smooth transition from screening room to marketplace. Once everything is in check, then you too can enjoy a little champagne… before getting ready to start the whole process all over again on your next project. Picture that!