Bigga Than Ben: A Russians’ Guide to Ripping Off London

Today’s Filmmaking guest article comes from U.K. based writer, director and producer Suzie Halewood. Her and I got the opportunity to meet during her last visit to Los Angeles. And I was very much impressed with her story and experience. Today she shares some awesome  filmmaking tips – which serve as a very nice case study for any independent filmmaker embarking on a bigger than life project…

Here is the trailer:



The day we started filming Bigga Than Ben we had £77K in the bank. This may sound a lot (depending on your ambition) but it’s never enough and it shifts – fast. By the end of the shoot we raised a further £45K (loan and remortgage) and shot the film for £122K.


The post cost the same again. Sort out your post deals up front. Make sure every element you need for delivery is pre-agreed and signed off. On paper.


The great thing about equipment houses is that they’ll lend out their stuff gratis when it isn’t being used. You of course offer them a stake in the film – it’s going to be a success after all – and they accept. They’re experienced enough to know their stake will amount to diddly. It’s the relationship that counts. They won’t lend anything without insurance and this is one cost that can’t be avoided.

Make sure generosity is rewarded. Equipment houses like theatrical posters for their halls and invites to screenings (whether they attend or not). This relationship is going to serve you extremely well in the future. Nurture it.


I might be kidding myself, but the actual shoot turned out to be the easiest part of the whole process. This is because it’s the only time you have an entire team behind you. You need one throughout – you just won’t be able to afford it. Make sure you cover all the potential PR angles.

Have a photographer on set. You will forever thank yourself that you have hundreds and perhaps thousands of pictures to accompany your PR campaign. And get someone to film an EPK/making of. Make sure the actors know there is someone filming the EPK and limit their exposure to this – downtime is just that and they don’t want a camera in their face 24/7.


Producing is thankless – especially if you feel grubby & cheap asking for money. After all, both you and the investor know how hard it is to make money back from film (it doesn’t need to be – we’ll get to middle men later) but there are enough tax incentives to make it attractive – in the UK risk outlay can be reduced by 70% depending on tax position through the EIS scheme. We didn’t run an EIS for Bigga, but it’s worth it.

Keep up-to-date with all available tax incentives – makes the job of raising money a lot easier. You’ll sound more professional if you understand and can explain the financials. Run your business plan by an accountant/lawyer. Chances are you won’t be sued. But you can if you offer the world in a legal document and fail to deliver.


A common mistake (guilty, your honor) is to rush your film out too fast. You’ve sweated over this thing. You want to pay back your investors and your creative ego would like some rave reviews and an active imdb feature credit. Remember, at this stage YOU CANNOT SEE THE WOOD FOR THE TREES. Luckily, if you’re not a studio pic, you’re not tied to a timetable. Screen the first cut to friends, take notes. Do not (as I did) end up re-editing after the sound mix. It improved the film, but it cost me £25K and that’s a loan + interest I’m still paying off – to Nat West/RBS – a bank being sued by companies and individuals on both sides of the Atlantic…but that’s another film.

Hold fire. Be sure. Even if everybody tells you it’s great. If you know in your bones it can be improved, do it. I know you’re tired, but this is crucial.


So, I’ve now spent £225K (approx) of other people’s (and my) hard earned money. And I have two trump cards in the two leads. Andrei Chadov who has huge value in Russia (as does the book Bolshe Bena by Sergei Sakin and Pavel Tetersky – on which the film was based – and which outsold Harry Potter in one Moscow bookstore, apparently) and Ben Barnes who won the role of Prince Caspian while we were recutting. Great. Slam dunk. However, the audience for The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian is never going to buy into Ben Barnes as a racist, drug dealing Russian. They’re not even old enough to see the film. Dull of them, but there you go.

When considering PR angles, play to your strengths. Andrei was the one to push in Russia. His brother Aleksey (Nightwatch, Daywatch) attended the Moscow premiere – they’re both big stars there, so it really helped. The film took $500,000 at the Russian box office and the investors got back half their money – from one territory. Knowing which are your strong territories for whatever reason will help you focus and target PR campaigns for those territories.


So things are looking rosy. The Russians (a joy to work with and uber-professional) paid up-front so the investors are happy. But just when things are going swimmingly, some guy pops up to say he owns the rights to the book as it was he who first printed the extracts. This is true. I’d met him early on in the proceedings and when he proved impossible to negotiate with, I gave up on the book (nearly broke my heart). It was only a couple of years later when one of the writers approached me to say the rights had reverted back to them (I saw the contract) that I decided to pursue it.

But the law is a strange thing. In Russia, if anyone makes such a claim, the film has to be pulled (whether they own the rights or not) which meant a deal had to be struck. Which was basically, cough up $50K or don’t leave Russia (I was in Moscow at the time and I embellish). Thankfully, those being the heady days when it was two dollars to the pound, I was able to rustle up $20K which was enough for a hasty exit (I’ve been arrested in Russia before – it’s not pretty). The rest could come out of the TV sale.

I have to admit to a slight tear on the train to the airport (no car this time, I’d fucked up after all). I put this down to tiredness – I’d been drinking all night with the Chadov brothers and their impossibly beautiful girlfriends – but it could as easily be the sheer effort it takes to sometimes get nowhere. As I looked from the train’s net curtains to the lady selling old books from a shopping cart (in the UK they sell old sandwiches) and the Moscow workers, hands dirtied from manual labor, it struck me what a privilege it is to make films. It cost me money, time and some friendships. But I only cried twice during the process – less than in any relationship. And at least I have something to show for it. Enjoy it.

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To find out more about Bigga Than Ben and how you can help, check out the crowdfunding campaign here: www.indiegogo.com/biggathanben

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Filmmaking Tips: PART TWO

Pretentious as it sounds, filmmaking isn’t something you choose. It chooses you. So this isn’t something you can give up on, no matter how many of your friends & family send links to teacher training sites, dating agencies and various cash incentive opportunities. For the content providers, it’s about love. For the sales agents and distributors, it’s mostly – and as it should be – about money. The trick is finding a relationship which benefits all parties and unless you’re a banker, there is such thing as a win-win deal.

If yours is a micro-budget film with no stars but a great PR angle – you have to consider whether the PR angle is strong enough to a) generate enough publicity and hype to sell directly online – all proceeds go to filmmakers and therefore investors or b) strong enough t be taken up by a sales agent/distributor/studio. They’ll do the work, conjure up the razzamatazz and keep the money.

It may have the possibilities of both. But there can be only one. The choice (if you’re lucky enough to be offered one) as to which direction to take is yours and (depending on your contract – and you’d better have one) that of your investor(s).

Don’t underestimate perception. If you take the a) route and you generate good traffic to your various sites, you may keep the investor happy, but the lack of razzamatazz could make financing your second film harder. That said if your contact list and conversion rate is better than the sales agent with the offer on the table, you probably don’t need that sales agent.

If you take the b) option, more people will hear of your film and you. You’ll get a fuzzy feeling from seeing a Lionsgate or Universal or whatever logo before your film (or on the DVD case), you’ll probably get an agent (or a better agent) and after seeing you in the LA Times your mom will finally get what you’ve been up to all these years.

Films with no domestic release are a harder sell overseas, so if you’re opting for a) make sure there is one – no matter how small – reviews are free publicity. If option b) check the contract – it may not include theatrical.

Again, these decisions depend on a multitude of variables, not least the type of film (sci-fi and horror have strong direct platforms) and your relationship with your investor(s) who may be more excited about having his/her name on a Sony picture than actually seeing a ROI (return on investment).

I have no advice on this. It is your own personal take. I can however pass on the advice I was given from a very successful producer (behind one of the biggest hits of all time) who, on hearing I was about to turn down a particular sales agent in favour of going it alone, said ‘Suz, bend over, take it up the *** and for God’s sake, don’t forget to thank them afterwards’.


Get good actors (by this I mean ones that can deliver) and give them as much time as is feasibly possible when on set.

Get a great, ambitious and fast DP.

Get top quality sound recordists – bad sound will affect your ability to sell the film and you’ll have to fall back on ADR which actors hate and is always horrible. Don’t ever go over the top on this (filmmakers can get addicted to studios – don’t get too comfortable on that sofa that’s bigger than your apartment, because it is you paying for that sun-dried tomato brioche).

Don’t forget the on-set photographer – seriously worth their weight in gold. If you only have silver, bring them in on the super-visual days and make sure the actors are covered – in character.


1. Make sure there’s a get out clause

2. Cap costs (% of sales)

3. Get money from first dollar – corridor

4. Don’t skimp on their commission or they’ll have no incentive.

5. Don’t agree to expenses/year or they’ll spread their bet

6. Sales commission from net not gross (they’ll always say ‘no’ to this)

7. No option to refuse a sale unless OK’d by producer

8. Limit the rights term

9. Hold back a territory or two

10. Go via a collections agent


Don’t pick fights you don’t need.

Don’t hate people who don’t like your movie. They might like the next one and one day, you might need them.

Stay focused on The Work. The rest is as enjoyable or miserable as you wish to make it.

STAY ON GOOD TERMS WITH EVERYONE. You’ll be surprised who you need later down the line.

FOLLOW THROUGH. Essential if you’ve opted for option a). After working so hard on the film, raising the money, casting, crewing, kicking yourself that you were too busy to perfect the script – don’t be fooled into thinking the film has suddenly developed a momentum of its own. You are the momentum. It won’t go anywhere without your input. It won’t get itself into festivals, Walmart or onto IndieGoGo and Kickstarter. Never give up until the fight is done!

And if you’re still getting nowhere, change your mindset from ‘why won’t anyone help me?’ to ‘who is going to stop me?’

Never, ever, give up.


To find out more about Bigga Than Ben and how you can help, check out the crowdfunding campaign here: www.indiegogo.com/biggathanben

A little disclaimer: There are many filmmakers who may disagree with the above. So just know that these observations are based purely on my own experiences.

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Suzie Halewood’s first feature screenplay One More Kiss starred Gerard Butler (300, Machine Gun Preacher), her second The Filmmaker was optioned by Andrew MacDonald (Trainspotting) and further screenplays have been optioned including two co-written with LA Times correspondent Richard Marosi The Fortress (TV Pilot) and Death & Deliverance. She also directed a number of award-winning shorts, commercials and the Bafta nominated interactive web series Running Time produced by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire). Bigga Than Ben starring Ben Barnes was her first feature as director. It made The Times Top 100 Films of 2008, showcasing at Edinburgh (Best of the fest) Moscow, Cinequest, Los Angeles DIYFF (Winner), and Austin (nominee). Her follow up film is science fiction thriller Division 19 with Dougray Scott, Neve Campbell and Jamie Draven.

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ARTICLE BY Jason Brubaker

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