Filmmaking the Hard Way

If you’ve been visiting filmmaking stuff for any length of time, you know that I am rather bullish on the ways new methods in film distribution is shaping our industry. Never before have audiences been so fragmented. And never before have filmmakers had the vast array of distribution tools available.

There is no doubt that distribution is confusing.

But as an entrepreneurial filmmaker, it is equally important that you learn everything you can about growing an audience. Below you will find an excerpt from Josh Folan’s new book, titled: Filmmaking, the Hard Way – Where he shares his experience with distribution.

Filmmaking The Hard Way

Filmmaking The Hard Way

As the process of securing and conducting distribution can be convoluted, here are some steps, which are not in any sort of chronological order, to keep in mind as you forge ahead.

Marketing Materials  ✓Publicity  ✓Niche Marketing  ✓Event Marketing

✓Festival Strategy  ✓Seeking Distribution & Approaching Film Markets

✓Distributor Negotiation & Delivery  ✓Self-Distribution

✓Indie Distribution Legal Checklist

We started working on assembling our marketing materials, reaching out to reviewers and tapping into target niches long before we were in a position to profit from any interest we created.

There are pros and cons to the creation of buzz prior to the monetization phase; a stockpiled audience (email list subscribers, Facebook and Twitter followers, etc.) can easily be accessed once the film is ready and that existing audience can be an interest beacon for traditional distributors, as well as a bargaining tool in your negotiations with them.

On the other hand, an individual’s interest in your film could very well never be as incentivized to buy as it is when they first become aware of it, so to not have the film available for sale at the brief moment you have someone’s attention could result in lost sales.

Given we endured the anguish of not really formulating one in advance, I strongly recommend you devise a well planned and advantageously timed marketing strategy that will allow you to make informed decisions… Instead of the blind stabs we were taking for over a year prior to securing a distributor.

Unsure of our traditional distribution prospects, we decided to engage in some self-distribution around the time of our festival premier at the Hoboken International Film Festival in June of 2011 – which amounted to having a small run of DVDs printed up and sold from the website, as well as placing the film on the online VOD platform IndieFlix.

Some distribution personnel would argue this course of action diminishes a title’s attractiveness to a distributor, as they want to be able to direct the initial release of the film to their liking and hate the idea of having already missed sales when acquiring a title, but it ultimately did not prevent us from securing a deal.

Osiris Entertainment did ask that we pull the DVD offer from the website and remove the film from any and all VOD platforms, but that was the extent of the “backlash.”

Based on that experience, I’d be hard pressed to come up with a reason to recommend against this type of “soft self-release” if you are in an open-ended distribution search with no potential A-list festival premieres on the horizon.

With that distribution and marketing climate stated, I’ll cover how we tackled each of these categories.

Marketing Materials

You’ll have an endless need for content – teasers, trailers, promo videos, stills, etc. – so start stacking it all in a neat, organized little pile that you can quickly sift through when the need arises.  Some critical tools will be covered here, but you should tirelessly be cooking up new, unique ways to spin the content you are able to compile in ways to help market the film.

Key Art.  I originally took some conceptual drafts we kicked around as key art possibilities and just went off on my own with Adobe Fireworks to put together the poster we would use until securing distribution, after which it was retooled by Osiris into the image currently in circulation.  I used stills from John Harris, tracked down a cool font on the interwebs, and did what I could with my limited design proficiency.

We were ever-so-proud of keying the word “LOVE” in red into the title of the film itself, as well as a few other little hidden messages in the production company text at the top.  With our second feature, What Would Bear Do, I turned to Craigslist and sought out a young artist, James Eads, to put together an illustration based off stills we had from the shoot – again, for his first feature film credit and a nominal stipend.

Press KitYou should already have the groundwork laid for this by the distribution stage, so you’ll just be updating and rounding out the existing document here.  Update the bios of key cast and crew, include a page about the bands you’ve involved the music of, include a thoughtful note from the key filmmakers about what the film means to them, update the full cast and crew credit listing with post-production personnel.

After that, write a short background paragraph explaining all the trials and tributes that were weathered to make the film a reality, include any press coverage you were able to drum up during the shoot, and be sure to highlight anything else that makes your film unique/interesting/cool.  Ultimately, the purpose of the document is to sell the film, so sell the film!  You can pull up the press kit for All God’s Creatures here as well as the press release for What Would Bear Do here.

Videos.  This is where you have to really get creative.  The effectiveness of the promotional video content you create to market the film will hinge on whether you are able to encapsulate the best aspects of your film and convey them to a viewer in the short attention span you are likely to be afforded.

That means you need to pinpoint what is unique, interesting, captivating – whatever the selling point of your product is – and be able to fire it at the speed of light into the potential consumer’s psyche in a fashion that leaves them hankering for more.

In the case of All God’s Creatures, we catered to the love story theme by creating 30-second matching his and hers teasers that touched on the troubled individual lives of the lovers.

We were very aware of the micro-budget filmmaking aspect of our work, and didn’t hesitate to highlight it in a short documentary interview series we shot with Tym Moss, one of the day player actors in the film, while talking with him for his internet radio show.

We ended up naming the series Shoot to Kill: The Making of All God’s Creatures – you can watch the full series on YouTube.

On What Would Bear Do, with the comedic subject matter in mind, I’ve cut similarly styled his and hers teasers that were of course a smattering of the funny moments between the guy and girl pairings in the lead foursome.  I’ve also been using some of the better outtakes as short teasers.

You’ll definitely need a full two to three minute traditional trailer, though I’d try to keep it much closer to the former.  You’ll likely have a natural inclination to try to tell the story here, as we struggled to defy with both films, but you have to resist that urge and keep in mind that this is a sales tool – your goal is to sell the film, not tell the story told in it.

What accomplishes that best is project-specific, but understand you don’t need to follow any rules.

If it’s more interesting to put the something from the end of the film as the opening image of the trailer, where you should be setting up the characters and plot, then by all means put it there.  Making two minutes of awesome that leaves the viewer telling his or her friend to google the trailer is the sole purpose here.

The one counter to this theory is if you full-on mislead the consumer about what the film is about, you risk them reacting negatively when they watch the movie itself and trashing the film in their social circles because it wasn’t their cup of tea.

I’ve seen that happen with art films being portrayed as something they’re not, simply to get butts in theater seats – Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers are examples of this.

Things have worked out alright for both filmmakers in those cases, but then again they had Ryan Gosling and James Franco at their disposal.

Filmmaking the Hard Way

My book, Filmmaking, the Hard Way puts low budget filmmaking under the microscope by analyzing the process of making a film from top to bottom with an honesty and transparency rarely found in writings of its kind.

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Josh Folan is a producer, writer, director and actor with professional credits dating back to 2005. His first feature-length film venture, the romantic thriller All God’s Creatures, was released through Osiris Entertainment in May of 2012. Folan’s second feature, a slacker buddy comedy titled What Would Bear Do? You can follow Josh @joshfolan and his production company, NYEH Entertainment.

Crowdfunding For The Canyons

“Hollywood Types” Go Micro-budget and Borderline Hipster with The Canyons on Kickstarter 

By Laura Zinger
Filmmaker And Guest Film Blogger

Have you been wondering when the Hollywood would jump on the blitzkrieg bandwagon that is Crowdfunding? It’s happened.

Writer Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho) has teamed up with writer-director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver), and producer Braxton Pope to utilize crowdfunding for the new feature titled The Canyons.

If you’ve never heard of crowdfunding, get with the program! As a modern moviemaker, you need to get used to the fact that you will, at some point in your filmmaking career, end up utilizing crowdfunding (Kickstarter or Indiegogo) as part of your fundraising strategy. Not only that, but you’re going to have to sell yourself just as much as you will have to sell your film.

If you’re new to crowdfunding, read this.

For filmmakers familiar with crowdfunding, check out The Canyons Kickstarter Page. It’s well worth it — if only for seeing the perks being offered. The Canyons offers everything from Producer’s coffee with Braxton Pope (only 2 out of 15 are remaining) to a money clip autographed and given to Paul Schrader by Robert De Niro on the set of Taxi Driver! Price tag? $10,000. Sold? You better believe it.

But my absolute favorite reward that The Canyons‘ team is offering is this: “TRAIN WITH BRET”

This perk allows you to train alongside Bret Easton Ellis and his personal celebrity trainer Christian Graham for a week. The package includes three hour long workouts, access to supplements and consultation. How much more could you give an absolute fan than the ability to sweat alongside one of your favorite authors in one of the most intimate of settings, the American gym?

Or maybe I am over thinking the intimacy factor here because I am a woman. Not sure. Please weigh in here, guys. Isn’t the American gym a place of intimacy especially when working out with someone?

Producer Braxton Pope admitted that they have gotten some fire from utilizing crowdfunding, because they are seen as “Hollywood Types.” (My quotes, not Braxton’s.) And some people feel that “Hollywood Types” should take on all the financial responsibility for their film projects and not take away funding from lesser known artists who do not have presumed access to the large piggy banks that “Hollywood Types” apparently do.

Braxton said that they are expected to call up Scorcese and ask him for funding.

Braxton was also quick to point out, that by their team even having a project on Kickstarter their eyes were opened up to other worthwhile projects on Kickstarter that they have themselves have become backers of. Pope has since backed two documentaries and a recording project in the last month. Additionally, Braxton said that there is so much support for crowdfunded projects in general, that there really is no need to get upset about their crowdfunded project.

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Last year alone, Kickstarter pledges equaled $99,344,382. (Please keep in mind that “pledged” means pledged on all projects whether they were funded or not. This is not the number for how much money was actually collected from successfully funded projects. Kickstarter didn’t release those numbers for some reason. Lame…)

According to Paul Schrader, in The Canyons’ Kickstarter pitch video, the team is taking their micro-budget to heart. Paul says, “The money we raise on Kickstarter certainly isn’t going into salaries, because everyone is working for free, or as free as the guilds will allow us to work.”

Not being able to pay cast and crew well or at all is a serious annoyance in independent filmmaking. I mean, how is anyone supposed to make a living? But if that is the sacrifice one must make in order to be independent of the studio system, I believe it’s worth it. (Having worked at Starbucks in my late 20s in order to temporarily escape “the man” was one of the best life decisions I’ve ever made.)

Bret said that if they can pull The Canyons off successfully as a high quality production on a micro-budget, then they will indeed do another micro-budget feature. (Also, is it just me, or does the shirt and glasses ensemble Paul Schrader has on in the pitch video make him look like a Priest? I’ve done a double take every time I’ve watched this video. Maybe Pope put him up to it?)

But above and beyond who The Canyons team is made up of, and the fact that this team is using crowdfunding to fund their film.

Here is why I suggest that you, Modern Moviemakers, should support and pay attention to them: Bret and Braxton believe wholeheartedly in Transparency. They feel that crowdfunding allows them transparency and openness with their audience.

“Transparency,” according to Uber Indie Producer, Ted Hope, in his appropriately challenging and dynamic post, Our Obligation to Share “begins with us. Transparency is a process, a behavior. By definition, it is an openness to share – share not only our successes, but also our process and all it entails. It seems we have had a lot of trouble committing to this openness.”

In line with their belief in transparency, The Canyons’ team has offered a $10 Kickstarter reward in which you can “Help us cast the film! You will be given access to a private link on that will allow you to vote on our casting finalists.”

Oddly, only 83 backers have signed onto this reward, but the implication of being allowed to have an opinion in the casting of a feature film is game-changing. Will this crowdfunding, the-fan-is-all mentality combined with the transparency philosophy that Bret, Braxton, and Ted Hope all subscribe to turn modern filmmaking into a loose execution of the popular Choose Your Own Adventure novels?

Will this make modern films better or worse? Is this the only way that crowdfunding can actually work? And at what point does fan engagement with crowdfunding lead to pandering to your audience, which is the supreme philosophy of the Studio System?

These are definitely questions worth asking, that modern moviemakers should ask themselves as they navigate the seemingly wonderful, dolphin and sprite-filled waters that are crowdfunding. (Sprites are a race of fairies with green skin and wings for those of you not in the know. And if you don’t know what a dolphin is, god bless you, Google it.)

Bret Easton Ellis says The Canyons lays out the true challenges their team faces in making a micro-budget feature: “Can we actually within those parameters make a real movie where we have the action beats, we have drama, a tight story, the camera moves, and a lot of exteriors.”

If The Canyons is a challenge for these “Hollywood Types” to see if they can make a high quality production on a micro-budget in an attempt at reclaiming once again their creative independence, I sincerely believe any modern moviemaker should take notice, and follow or contribute to The Canyons’ Kickstarter campaign, because for all of us, this is THE crowdfunded, film-based project to watch for the next two days.

In my humble opinion, if these “Hollywood Types” can pull it off, then there’s no reason the rest of us can’t. It’s time for modern moviemakers to pull themselves out of the murky depths of budget constrained quality production and do what this team plans to do.

Also, I noticed that producers Hope and Pope’s last names in juxtaposition seem almost a literal indication of what you as a Modern Moviemaker should be doing a lot of (hoping and praying) as you charge forward with your filmmaking!

You can listen to the hour long phone interview between Bret, Braxton, and myself by clicking the link below.

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Enjoy and good luck, Modern Moviemakers!

Laura Zinger
Laura Zinger talks fast and is the owner of 20K Films, a Chicago-based, documentary production company.

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Laura Zinger (Filmmaking Stuff Interviewer): So gentlemen, I wanted to ask you what The Canyons is about because for the life of me, all I can find is the same one liner which says, “The Canyons documents five twenty-something’s quest for power, love, sex and success in 2012 Hollywood.” What is it really about?

Bret Easton Ellis: I don’t know who came up with that. Who came up with that, Braxton?

Laura Zinger: Who are you going to blame?

Bret Easton Ellis: That really doesn’t, I’m not going to blame anybody.

Braxton Pope: It doesn’t capture the script really [laughs] really well at all.

Laura Zinger: No, I would say no. I would say that’s disappointing.

Bret Easton Ellis: Yeah, I would say…

Laura Zinger: And you raised $144,000 on that.

Bret Easton Ellis: Yeah, yeah it’s strange to me that was how, that that was how the movie ended up being synopsisized. You know I started out when we were first sitting down thinking about doing a micro-budget movie, Paul Schrader, Braxton, and myself, we were thinking how can we make one of these micro-budget movies that aren’t about two people in a car for you know 90 minutes talking…

Laura Zinger: You’re not a fan of that, Bret? Two people in a car for 90 minutes talking?

Bret Easton Ellis: Well when I was looking at certain micro-budget movies, I noticed one or you know they were usually very very simple and they seemed almost hampered by their budgets. But they looked okay and were made for, whatever, $20,000 before post, cool. That was cool. But you know it’s like ok, so two characters, and a car driving along the countryside complaining about their relationships or you know, they were newlyweds, you know 6 people basically in a loft complaining about their relationships, and…

Laura Zinger: It sounds like you’re describing Mumblecore.

Bret Easton Ellis: Uh, yeah, but at least Mumblecore with a movie like COLD WEATHER, for example broke out of the genre by actually heading toward noir, and had almost action beats to it within a Mumblecore sensibility, and I started to think, it’s very interesting you mention Mumblecore, because I think Mumblecore is kind of interesting and I’m kind of amazed at the quality of a lot of the writing and directing, of some of those movies, and it really came together last year, there were a couple of films.

I think UNCLE KENT was one of them, which I thought was really interesting, and I also thought that COLD WEATHER was one of them, and I thought the idea was okay, look, we’re going to make a micro-budget movie, there are certain constraints, but let’s not make the typical micro-budget movie. Let’s make a real movie, let’s make a genre movie and I think because I’m so identified with what the synopsis sounds like, it made it such a sell, but really I wasn’t even thinking about how old the characters were.

Yeah, everyone in the cast is basically in their 20s, but really, my launching pad, where I took off from was noir, was a noir script, and I was thinking about, okay, I know what the parameters were, I know what the boundaries are of what our budget is probably going to be, can we actually within those parameters, make a real movie, where we have the action beats, we have drama, a tight story, the camera moves, we have a lot of exteriors, you know, a lot of things that you know. So that was playing heavily on my mind, I was wanting to do a noir story, I wanted to do a kind of mystery thriller, but yes, but I did have to say it is true, it is kind of my, the cast is basically Ellis archetypes, you know? They are, some of them are rich kids living in LA, well one rich kid in particular, but it is, it does move away from kind of the aimlessness or randomness of quote unquote on some of my work and it really is a sort of tightly plotted thriller, you know.

Laura Zinger: You’re more interesting than the synopsis. You guys, I mean basically like, look, your one-liner, it’s tweetable right, but you both have the most fantastic twitter feeds, like you both write tweets so well, and you couldn’t write a better synopsis?

Bret and Braxton: [Both Laugh]

Braxton Pope: Neither of us wrote the synopsis so, perhaps one of us should have actually bothered to come up with it.

Bret Easton Ellis: Who did come up with the synopsis?

Braxton Pope: Someone from production did, but I don’t know who specifically.

Laura Zinger:  Please don’t call them out.

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Sell Your Movie

Lasky's original studio, aka: "The Barn&q...
Lasky’s Original Studio, AKA The Barn —  Image via Wikipedia

If you’ve made a movie or you’re working to make your movie (and I hope you are), you might also be thinking about how you’re going to sell the sucker.

I mean, despite the fact that filmmaking is fun there is a business component to it. If you fail to think in terms of Return On Investment (ROI), then getting money for your next movie is going to be even more difficult than the first, for two reasons:

  1. You’ll need to worry about money to put food on the table.
  2. Your prospective investors will want to see your track record.

As a filmmaker, the other factor we have to consider is our initial budget. Go too high and the chance of return could diminish. Let me explain.

I’ve chatted with a few heavy-hitting friends in the industry (that I hope to interview soon) and there is talk about what I’m going to call the “no-man’s-land” of indie movie production. That is, there is a budget range from roughly 2.5M-10M that is becoming increasingly difficult to finance.

Tax credits and other deals aside – What I’m suggesting is due, in large part to changes in movie distribution and the subsequent challenge of generating enough revenue to recoup the initial investment.

Indie film financing was always a crap shoot – but take away potential sales channels and add the fact that technology now permits virtually anyone to make a decent looking movie and you can begin to understand why this is happening.

While I’m on the subject, I’m not just talking about the indie movies. I’m including studios as well. Thanks to the success of Paranormal Activity,  there is now word that Paramount is going to launch a micro budget division and begin to churn out movies under 100K.

From a business standpoint this makes sense. You invest 100K and you get 100M – That’s pretty good! (Understatement).  But from holy crap perspective, the ripple effect of a studio churning out no-to-low budget movies could potentially rip a hole in the ways Hollywood traditionally operates. (BTW, Paramount is not the first studio to attempt this. But thanks to VOD outlets and more digital projectors in theaters, what didn’t work at this budget level in the past could very well work now.)

Lets talk some numbers…

Traditionally, when movies are financed most people including grips, gaffers, craft services and other crew – they get paid on the front end as part of the movie’s budget. We can also include some agents, managers, lawyers, Teamsters, writers, actors – and mostly everyone else too.

On the micro budget level however, there isn’t enough money up-front to pay these folks what they were formally worth. So there are a few options. Hire less people. Hire non-union folks. And offer to pay Teamsters deferred pay with the added bonus of copy and credit. (I’m adding some humor here – but can you imagine Paramount trying to offer a Teamster deferred pay?)

Ok, so what does this mean for you and your movies? Well just look at the music industry. Recording studios and record companies took a nose dive. But that hasn’t stopped people from making music or making money making music.

Instead of asking some idiot in a suit for permission to make music, musicians can now find their audiences, build a following and sell their music… Without a middle man – globally. That’s pretty amazing.

The same wide open world applies to your movie. Do good work and people will notice. Do bad work, and well, you still have the opportunity to find the 20 people in the world who think you’re brilliant. And in terms of pay structure – I made a joke earlier about deferred pay. But I am not totally opposed to some well structured back end deals. I mean, 1/4th of 1% of 100M is – it’s nothing to sneeze at.

Of course, as we all know there is no guarantee that any movie project will make money. So for you and me and most indies, it will take roughly two years of hustle to churn out a movie that we can be proud of. For the studios, they are going to churn out micro-budget movies like widgets in a factory.  The odds of success, for both of us  – the indie filmmakers and the studio are getting closer equal.

And I think that is something worth celebrating.

Is anyone else excited about this? Please feel free to comment.