The 5 Immutable Laws of Successful Filmmaking

As an independent filmmaker, the prospect of putting together a project and creating something awesome out of an idea really gets us going. Serious indie filmmakers stop at noting until the movie is actually in the can – or these days – in your hard drive.

Still if you’ve been working to make movies for any length of time, you know there are days when you hit obstacles, sometimes so seemingly insurmountable that you just want to give up on your project.

Here are five tips to help keep you on the path to successful filmmaking.

Successful Filmmaking

The 5 Immutable Laws of Successful Filmmaking

  1. Remember Perspective – You’re not performing brain surgery. You’re attempting to make a movie. This is a fun business. This is a privilege.
  2. Facing Rejection – Always ask WHY? Sometimes your pitch is perfect, but your audience is wrong. Make sure you’re talking to people who are actually interested in your type of project.
  3. Break down BIG goals – Setting out to make your version of impossible, possible can be overwhelming. It is important to break all of your goals into smaller, more manageable tasks
  4. Missing Personal Deadlines – It happens. Sometimes people cry. I suggest you simply change your deadline.
  5. Your Peer Group – If you surround yourself with negative losers, you lose. Make it an ongoing habit to always surround yourself with winners.

If you like these bite sized filmmaking tips, you’ll love our Filmmaker Checklist.

Aspiring screenwriter: Go Hollywood or go indie?

Aspiring screenwriter: Go Hollywood or go indie?
By, Screenwriter Jurgen Wolff

Because I’ve written a few books about screenwriting I sometimes get questions from people just starting out on their careers. One query that has started coming up more often recently is whether it’s better to chase the Hollywood dream or get involved with indie films, including ones made for the web.

Well, as Socrates once said, “That depends.”

Hollywood is hard to crack. At any given time, people tend to say it has never been harder, but maybe that’s actually true as far as mainstream feature films are concerned these days. It won’t have escaped your attention that the trend is toward movies with huge budgets. Knowing that a picture is going to cost $200 million or more makes decision makers prefer to go with writers and directors with a track record.

Sometimes they do gamble. For instance, they got a guy who’d never directed live action to direct “John Carter.” The outcome of that one probably set back the cause of risk-taking for a few years. On the other hand, maybe that was offset by the success of “The Artist.”

Of course hiring a name director is no guarantee of success, but it gives the decision makers more of an excuse: “His last three were big hits, how could I know this one wouldn’t be?”

The upside of screenwriting for Hollywood

If you do break into that small circle of (mainly) guys who are tapped to write the big summer action pictures, the financial rewards are considerable. The smaller the pool of A-list writers, the more they get paid. It also gives you power. If you write a couple of hits and want to direct, you’ll get the chance. If you want to make a small picture that nobody think will make any money, if they want you badly enough for a big script assignment, you’ll get that, too.

You will also find entities like HBO and Showtime will be interested in hearing your ideas, if you decide at some point you’d like to do a series.

The downside of Hollywood

The power I referred to lasts only as long as your projects are a success. There can be a lot of reasons for a movie to fail other than a bad script. The first time it happens they’ll cut you some slack. If it happens again, the phone calls will slow down. Three strikes and you’ll wonder if your cell phone is broken.

Also, your power doesn’t extend to having final say on what happens with the script. Even the hot writers get rewritten. How’s your tolerance for seeing other people make those decisions without you? Once you’ve turned in your draft, generally they don’t want to have you around any more. As a courtesy (actually, to satisfy the Writers Guild agreements) you’ll get a copy of the script after everybody else has finished messing around with it. A few of those experiences and you may get into the habit of pouring yourself a stiff drink before you turn to page one.

The upside of indie films

The definition of independent cinema has always been a bit vague, and now that people are starting to make films directly for distribution on the web and having success with documentaries and a variety of harder to categorize formats it’s getting even more blurred. For the sake of this discussion, though, let’s assume that we’re talking about anything from no- to micro- to-low budget, and distribution via DVD (not for much longer), or Netflix, or other means via the web.

The upside is that you can write a story that doesn’t have to bring out the teen audience in massive numbers on opening weekend. The breadth of the subjects you can deal with, the pacing options, the opportunity to experiment are all huge advantages.

You’re much more likely to remain involved in the later stages of production, too. Generally indie producers and directors are happy to have the writer around to make adjustments that may be needed during the shoot. It’s much more likely to end up being the story you wanted to tell.

When it comes time to promote the film you’ll probably be asked to help with that, too, because there’s no big star involved who sucks up all the media attention.

There’s also a new model emerging of raising finance through crowdfunding, which Jason has written about on this site a number of times. The idea that you don’t need to convince a banker or manager of an investment fund of the viability of your story, that you can pitch it to your final customers, is exciting and this method of financing is only going to grow.

The downside of indie films

Money, lack of. Starving for your art can be romantic for a while, but eventually you do want to eat something other than peanut butter sandwiches. You may want to start a family, buy a place of your own, take a nice vacation once in a while. All the stuff that sounds hopelessly middle-class when you’re 20 seems a lot more attractive when you hit 35. Of course some indie films break out and make a lot of money, but it’s far from the norm.

The low budget can also impact the quality of the final product. Even if nobody changes your words, the limitations in terms of the cast, the sets, the number of shooting days, and so on can mean the film isn’t as polished as you’d like.

Above I mentioned that you’ll be more involved all the way along, from raising the money to helping to market the film, and I classed those as positives. It’s actually a mixed bag because all that takes time. It can eat up a lot of time you could be spending writing.

What’s the bottom line?

I think it comes down to what you value and your temperament. If you’re a good team player and can separate your ego from the process, and you are excited by the lifestyle that comes with earning a lot of money, then Hollywood may be your best bet. That’s especially true if you like the kinds of films they’re making.  If you think they’re crap, don’t kid yourself that you can fake it. Never works.

Even though you’ll have to be able to put your ego aside, you’d better have a strong one to start with. Confidence is a prerequisite. Even arrogance is rewarded in Hollywood more often than it’s punished—assuming you have the writing chops to back it up.

If your primary drive is to tell stories and your values are not heavily weighted toward material things, the indie route is more your thing. There are a number of indie filmmakers whose definition of success is that they make enough money on their last film to be able to make the next one.

If I were starting out today, I’d go for the indie route.  But, hey, maybe that’s because I love peanut butter.

– – –

Jurgen Wolff has written more than 100 episodes of television, the mini-series “Midnight Man,” starring Rob Lowe, the feature film “The Real Howard Spitz,” starring Kelsey Grammer, and as been a script doctor on projects starring Eddie Murphy, Michale Caine, Kim Catrall and others. His books include “Your Writing Coach” (Nicholas Brealey Publishing) and “Creativity Now!” (Pearson Publishing). For more tips from Jurgen Wolff, also see www.ScreenwritingSuccess.com

Three Steps For Netflix Distribution

UPDATE: You may want to read this article about Netflix Distribution

Many indie filmmakers are interested in finding out how to distribute their titles on Netflix. So I figured it wouldn’t hurt to provide some details and save you headaches.

Step 1 – Verify The Netflix Database
Netflix has a proprietary, systematic approach for scouting and selecting titles for their database. And unless your title is selected for the Netflix database, Netflix will not make an offer for it. This is a circular requirement. If your title is not listed, there is not a whole lot you can do to change this.

Step 2 – Increase Queue Demand
If your title is listed in the database, the next step is increasing the “queue demand” so that the Netflix algorithm can determine the value of your title. To increase Queue Demand, you will need to organize a mini campaign that involves getting friends and your social network followers to add the film to their Netflix queue.

Step 3 – Get An Offer
Assuming your title is included in the database and you are able to increase “queue demand” then a 3rd party or aggregator (like Distribber) would approach Netflix for an offer. At this point you will either get an offer that makes sense for your movie or they will pass on your title.

Keep in mind that these offers can sometimes be much lower than anticipated – so it is important to manage your expectations.

While I think Netflix is a popular platform, some filmmakers will not want to go through the process. If this describes you, it might behoove you to check out Hulu, iTunes and Amazon as great alternatives. My guide to VOD distribution might help.

DVD Distribution Is Dead

Do you remember retail DVD distribution? Do you remember walking into a video store and renting a video?

Those days are gone. The demise of retail DVD distribution means that you can no longer depend on some video rental chain to buy 5,000 copies of your DVD. The advent of the internet and the rise of internet movie distribution means that your movie is no longer a physical product. It is data.

Yet despite these changes, filmmakers still talk about the difference between traditional movie distribution and self-distribution.

I have news for you. If you mention the words self-distribution around me, I will whip you with a wet noodle. (Actually, I won’t really do that. I just used “wet noodle” to get your attention.) But the reason I am adimant about removing “self-distribution” from our filmmaking vernacular is because there is no such thing as traditional internet distribution.

This is because internet movie distribution is too new to be traditional!

But most filmmakers don’t get it. Whenever I give talks about internet distribution for filmmakers, someone invariably shares a story about some traditional distributor turned VOD aggregator, promising to get their title into iTunes and Amazon and Hulu.

And I’m like: “So what? Any filmmaker can access those platforms. Why do you need a middle-man?”

Blank stares.

Aside from getting your movie is on iTunes, Hulu and Amazon –  unless your “traditional distributor” is conducting verifiable and measurable marketing, there is no additional value.

But before you run into the streets naked with excitement (or fear), keep this in mind. Just because you can access the popular movie marketplaces and fire the middle-man does not necessarily mean you are guaranteed success. Think about it – there is a reason the movie studios spend millions of dollars marketing studio produced features.

The problem is, most indie filmmakers do not have millions to spend on marketing. This changes the game.

Here are THREE essential filmmaking skills you need to master:

1. Become an Internet marketer: Or team up with someone who is. Why? Because there will come a time when there is no delineation between the Internet and your television. Or your mobile device. As a result of these changes, you will need to drive targeted Internet traffic to your desired point of sale and convert these visitors into customers.

2. Find Out How To Crowdfund: Running a successful crowdfunding campaign requires social networking, real-world networking and Internet marketing. Aside from raising money, your goal is to test all your movie concepts before you dive in both feet first. And if successful, your goal is to snowball your supporters into one giant mailing list so you can gain their support for your next projects.

3. Your Audience Is Your Business: Marketing nerds have a saying, “The money is in your list.” It is now no different to filmmakers. Your ongoing goal is to create work that encourages people to sign up for your mailing list and become a fan of you and your movies, for life. Then with each project, your ongoing goal is to continually grow your list.

For some filmmakers, mastering internet movie distribution is easier said than done. I get that.

If you are like most filmmakers, you have probably spent your whole filmmaking career imagining that your movie would get “discovered” and you would be propelled into instant fame and fortune. And while I would never discourage you from thinking BIG… It is equally important to have a pragmatic approach to your work, complete with manageable expectations.

But do me a favor – despite any emotion you have towards distribution, please stop using the words “self-distribution.” It makes you sound old. Instead, repeat this mantra: “If my filmmaking success is meant to be, it’s up to me.”

And if you like this stuff, you can always grab your copy of the indie producer’s guide to digital distribution.

Keven Smith talks Movie Distribution

Kevin Smith at the 2008 Toronto International ...

Image via Wikipedia

I love Kevin Smith’s attitude towards modern movie distribution. If you’re like most independent filmmakers, what Kevin was able to accomplish from his days of Clerks has been amazing. Back then, he not only dreamed the Sundance Dream, but he realized the dream.

The Sundance dream is the idea that you will make your movie, get into Sundance, sell your movie and live happily ever after. As I have been telling you all along, the demise of DVD sales channels, replaced by ever evolving VOD marketplaces are impacting Filmmakers everywhere.

These days, if you are going to make movies and profit, you must now view your independent movie business in ways akin to how any business owner handles their business. You must source and grow your own audience list.

In the following video Kevin Smith shares his perspective on modern movie distribution and how the brave new world is impacting indie filmmakers.

Please feel free to comment.