Modern Moviemaking Manifesto Explained

Filmmakers need to establish a new business model to survive changes in VOD distritbution. Business Model Canvas: Nine business model bui...

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Last week I published a new filmmaking podcast called the Modern Moviemaking Manifesto. I published these ideas in response to all my veteran independent filmmaking friends who are currently having difficulty raising movie financing, and later, getting a return on that money.

Since posting, I have gotten a lot of feedback. Most of it has been positive. But there have been some questions. The most glaring involves how to create a production team for the long term. And the other feedback has something to do with my pragmatic approach to the movie business. I’m told that the modern movie making model, relying heavily on VOD distribution, is not as sexy as what most filmmakers expect (because I don’t talk about Hollywood fame and fortune and going to cool parties, et al.) One woman screamed at me, telling me that she doesn’t care about business and just wants to make movies. Other folks have simply told me my modern moviemaker ideas suck. And others have quit our filmmaking community.

This was to be expected. Not everybody is willing to explore or embrace new filmmaking ideas. And when I listen to my own recording, I can see how my enthusiasm for the modern moviemaking model could potentially sound pompous. This was not my intention. So I promise to get back to Toastmasters and refine my speech. But all of this aside, I believe the demise of traditional movie distribution creates a serious problem as filmmakers – and also a great opportunity. As a result, we have two options as filmmakers. We can choose to ignore this, or we can choose to be part of the modern moviemaking solution.

If you read Ted Hope’s blog – Truly Free Film, you may have seen my conversational responses to Sheri Candler’s well written guest post: How To Make Money With The New Independent Film Distributors’ Business Model. If not, it’s worth a read. And I have added one of my responses, on how to make Independent Filmmaking a viable business, here.

Just like you, I’m looking for a way that us fillmmakers can actually make a living making movies in this brave new world of VOD distribution. So in terms of empirical data, so far in my own business, I can tell you that at least one of our titles generates a nice stream of passive income without the middle-man, and without much marketing. As a result, many of the acquisition folks who formerally rejected our title have circled back with offers. While the new deals are OK (cash advances for foreign territories, complete with performance bumps), after crunching some numbers, the headache of locking up rights prompted us to respond in way familiar to most gate keepers: “Unfortunately we have to pass at this time.”

In this new era of filmmaking, our growing ability to make our movies, find our audience and make money without the middle-man has forever changed my life. And as a result, I firmly believe this process can be repeated for all subsequent titles. I mean, sure, we can still entertain traditional theatrical and retail DVD distribution both in North America and abroad (while these channels still exist, and if we are so fortunate) – but from now on, it is my intention to base my business plans on projected returns from our direct DVD rights as well as our VOD rights – because these are the two sales channels that filmmakers can access and control without asking some middle-man for permission.

For those of you who are adding your own thoughts to the Modern Moviemaking Manifesto, what I’m proposing is easier said than done. It is easy for me to talk about the success of our first feature. It is much more difficult to admit that our second feature bombed miserably. With that project, we did the complete opposite of everything that made our first title successful. The movie was a character driven drama, without any name talent. And while the production value was great, and the acting was good, we had no definable hook. Nothing about the movie separated it from the sea of other, similar character driven movies. Had it been 1995, we may have had a chance.

So my team and I learned some valuable lessons. Most modern moviemakers agree that it behooves us independents to create movies with a strong marketing hook, peppered with a bit of controversy, aimed at a very specific target audience. But when you crunch the numbers, to make this work, our niche audience must have mass enough to justify our movie budget.

While I have spent considerable effort to jam-pack these ideas into the Modern Moviemaking Manifesto, anybody who has studied Rodger Corman and read his book, “How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime” will quickly realize that the Modern Moviemaking Manifesto is not so “modern.” Corman has been utilizing it for years. Known for his type of down and dirty movie making, complete with fans who got to know him and know his work, Corman created a model where movies were made fast, cheaply, and each movie had a controversial hook.  The result of which allowed Roger Corman to create multiple streams of movie income.

But the one thing Roger did not have was a non-discriminatory sales channel. And thanks to VOD and companies like Distribber, we really have nothing holding us back from creating a similar empire. This is why I’m so full of enthusiasm for modern moviemaking. Nothing is holding us back from raising money, making movies and reaching our audience. And instead of simply blowing investor money on up-front compensation, we just have to adjust the model ever-so-slightly.

The Modern Moviemaking Manifesto is about creating movies fast, cheap and repeating the process, while at the same time creating awesome profit sharing deals on the back end. Over time, you will add more and more titles to your library. And this will create diversification, with the thought that dividends from dozens of titles can really add up.

How To Break Down and Schedule Your No-Budget Movie

If you’re a first time feature filmmaker, you do not need a gazillion dollars to join the feature club. But you will need to learn how to replace money with ginormous creatively. And once your screenplay is complete, then the next step in the filmmaking process is your initial breakdown and schedule.

Breaking down the script means you go through your screenplay, number each scene and highlight each element, including locations, characters, props, make up, wardrobe, picture vehicles and special FX…

All of these things cost money. And once the script is locked, any modification you make to the story or schedule, no matter how minor or major, will subsequently impact the budget.

My producer friend Forrest Murray always says the script, schedule and budget are the same document. You’ll need all three to make a movie… But in the process, if you change one document, you’re actually changing all three.

I’ll chat about this some more later. For today, let’s focus on your initial schedule so you can eventually get to your budget.

Schedule Your Movie And Save

1.After you highlight each element, you’ll want to figure out when you want to shoot your movie and how long you plan to shoot.

2.You can determine this by choosing how many pages you want to shoot per day. Then you can decide if you want to shoot 5 days on and 2 days off, or 6 days on and 1 day off. Or maybe you want to shoot your movie over a few weekends.

3.Everything in the script will impact your budget. There is software for this. Final Draft offers an add-on called Tagger. Tagger allows you to go through the script and pick out elements and highlight them in various colors. Once all elements are selected, you can eventually import this list into your budget and schedule software program.

4.After giving this your best effort, if you still feel stuck, seek expert advice.

5.Eventually, these elements will have a price in your initial budget. What is the price of each element? How much does your movie cost?

Many motion picture professionals make a living just breaking down, scheduling and budgeting movies. So it’s a pretty complicated and creative area. As a first time feature filmmaker, it save you many headaches if you partner with an seasoned 1st AD or Line Producer who could guide you through the process.

If this is not possible for you, I suggest reading every article on the subject as well as watching every YouTube video. This will teach you how to think like a cost conscious, responsible producer.

Regardless of your decision to complete your own breakdown or hire someone else for the job, the reason you’ll need an initial schedule is because this will give you a good starting point… You’ll utilize this information to figure out your budget. You’ll also be able to figure out if you need to cut an element or two, or not.

Cut Your Budget

Once you have your initial schedule, (and assuming this is your first feature), I suggest you create a budget for your movie in the neighborhood of $500K. Before you go crazy thinking this is a lot of money (or a little money), I want you to know you don’t actually have to spend $500K in hard cash to meet the needs of your budget.

In fact, once you determine you’ll make your movie at $500K, you are going to spend the next few weeks working backwards to see how much hard cash you can replace with sweat equity, discounts and favors from friends and family. Why $500K? Because if you actually have the elements budgeted, there is a good chance your movie will look better than if you budgeted for a mere $50K.

The reason for this is mostly psychological. By setting your budget at 500K, you’re going to start out with goal that forces you to get a higher production value than if you simply settled for pocket cash.

Later, with the application of tremendous creativity, it will be possible to reduce a $500K budget after discounts, free food, locations and salary adjustments quite significantly.

Do you have friends who own locations you can utilize for free? Do you have access to discounted equipment? Can you finish your movie faster than scheduled?

Do you have a friend with an edit suite?

Can you shoot some scenes outside during the day to reduce the need for extra lights? Can you find free food for your cast and crew? These are just some of the ways you can reduce that $500K budget.

One of my buddies was able to do this on the cheap. He had a location budgeted for $5K. However, after my buddy spoke with the owner of the location, the fee was reduced to zero. How? My buddy (a creative producer) agreed to shoot a promo for the owner’s business. Another filmmaker friend got free food for his entire shoot simply by asking.

The food supplier was thanked in the credits.

Deals like this happen. But it takes creativity to find opportunity. Here are some questions to ask:

How much money do I have?
How can I reduce expenses?
Can I get free food?
Who do I know who has the location I’m looking for?
How much money will I need?

The other reason you want to keep your first feature budget low is to allow greater opportunity for return. In the event you get a standard distribution deal (which is becoming more and more rare), your movie should look expensive.

If your budget is $500K and the movie looks like $500K, but you only spent $50K or $30K $15K in ultra-low-budget hard cash, and someone pays you back your budget, then you just made a crazy profit!

Nice work.

And in the event you do not get a standard distribution deal, then you’re not quite as deep in the financial hole as you otherwise would be.

Filmmaking Training From a Mentor

Mentors are role models who take a vested interest in your success. Sometimes, you meet your mentor when least expected, and they will help guide your filmmaking career.

A mentor will provide insight and will often direct you toward a successful outcome. This doesn’t necessary mean your mentor will enter into a business relationship with you, but he or she may offer necessary encouragement, advice and influence which will help you get closer to your goal. Your mentor will be there to answer questions.

Have you ever heard the phrase: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear?” Even though this sounds mystical, for me, finding a mentor has always happened without planning.

When I graduated college, one of my most influential mentors appeared in my life. After sending a resume and cover letter to every film and video company I could think of (and getting no response), I finally landed an interview with a guy named Joe Surges. Joe gave me my first job in the motion picture industry.

It didn’t pay very well, but Joe was willing to teach me everything he knew. He coached me through the easy times and pushed me through the tough times with unrelenting encouragement. When I planned my move to New York City, Joe made some phone calls.

Joe connected me with a friend who then connected me to another friend who offered me my first job.

Later, I was working on a feature. When our project completely fell apart, I found myself stuck in New York with no money and rising bills. I thought it was the end of my movie making world. Heck, I even thought it was the end of my apartment. But at that time, it was Joe who told me to quit complaining and get back to work.

His advice was the best.

Then, a year later, prior to his passing, Joe told me something that’s been rolling over and over in my mind ever since. He said, “You never know which ripple will hit the shore first.”

Since that time, whenever I’m hit with a new challenge, I play those words over and over in my mind. And through this practice, I’ve conditioned myself to find the opportunity in every obstacle.

While Joe taught me a lot about writing, directing and producing, it was his values, his life standard and his expectations which influenced me to create a higher standard in everything I do.

If it wasn’t for Joe’s mentoring, I would have never gone to NYC, would have never made a movie and would have never fell on my financial face—and recovered. Consequently, I would have never made the move to California, produced features or written these words.

Mentors have been there. They reach out and help you grow as a person. And I believe mentors are essential for our success.

Increase the production value of your movie

poster for The Matrix
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I’m going to ask a few questions today and also take us back in time…

Have you ever watched a movie where the story seemed like it was just a bunch of Visual Effects, with no substance?

Conversely, can you think of a movie where the FX and VFX were just icing on the cake?

When I first started out, the movie The Matrix was all the rage. I don’t know if you remember but at the time, that movie was fresh and exciting and as a filmmaker, inspiring. I remember enjoying the movie because first and foremost, it had a great story. The visual effects and fancy camera techniques were secondary, complementary and completely necessary to tell the story. (By the way, I’m not talking about The Matrix 2 or 3… I didn’t understand those movies.)

Two important lessons I learned during that time:

  1. The super cool techniques used in the movie were nothing new.
  2. And if you were making movies back then, you may have been inspired to mimic similar VFX in your own work.

I know this because, if you traveled the festival circuit after that movie, you would have seen all sorts of short films that tried to incorporate similar Matrix-esq gimmicks into a story that-didn’t-quite fit.

Why?

While your opinion of what makes a movie good might differ from mine, hopefully we subscribe to a similar filmmaking philosophy — That is, anything that we include in our final cut must fit the story and push the story forward.

We all know that staging locations in a recognizable city or adding overhead shots or adding some other nifty, super cool camera tricks can work to make your movie look more expensive than it is – But sometimes if you’re really honest, these fancy tricks aren’t necessarily complementary to your story.

And as filmmakers, this is where we run into trouble. Sometimes it’s just downright difficult to cut all those super cool shots from our movie. (Some of my filmmaker friends would argue that the folks responsible for the most recient Indian Jones movie and the Star Wars prequels may have fallen into a similar FX-for-the-sake-of-FX trap.)

So as a rule of thumb, if you add an element or location or some other nifty, neat-o trick to increase the production value of your independent movie and the element is not inline with your overall story, you run the risk of distracting your audience and taking them out of the movie.