Interview with Norman Berns

Norman C. Berns is an Emmy-winning producer and director. Beginning as a stage director, the full scope of his production work includes features and documentaries, TV series and commercials. As a member of DGA, SAG and Actors Equity, Norman has been creating films and preparing budgets, schedules and business plans his long career.

Today Norman stopped by Filmmaking Stuff to share his thoughts on filmmaking and let us know about his upcoming filmmaking seminars, which will be taking place in various cities all over the country.

Jason Brubaker
Hi Norman, thanks for stopping by today. With all your upcoming filmmaking seminars, are you finding any time to sleep?

Norman Berns
If I got more sleep, I’d stay up half the next night watching old movies. Fortunately, my wife is an early riser and I’m a light sleeper. Perfect combination. Gives me long days.

Jason Brubaker
Over the past five years, technology has become more affordable and distribution is open to just about anyone. For some, these changes are good. For others, not-so-good. What is your advice to those of us looking to make a living in the movie industry?

Norman Berns
Do it.  Suddenly production has been democratized. Everyone can make a movie. Even using a cell phone. Now this doesn’t make everyone an artist and it doesn’t make about 99.9% of the home-made films art. Fortunately, there’s a place for them. YouTube and Ego Sites are fine.

Jason Brubaker
These are great outlets for people who want to get audience feedback.

Norman Berns
The good news is that everyone gets to practice. That’s the important thing. That’s a good thing.

Jason Brubaker
I remember my first camera was an Arri BL. Back then, using an old 16mm camera was the only way to shoot a movie. And getting your work seen and distributed – that was a challenge.

Norman Berns
Suddenly technology has made Do It Yourself distribution possible, too. Most of the world has broadband fast enough to stream videos. The US is about 20th in the world – way behind the curve.

Jason Brubaker
It is an amazing time to be a filmmaker. But like anything else, even with advances in distribution getting your work seen is still a challenge.

Norman Berns
Distribution is still a hands-on job that takes a serious investment of time and money.  I tell people in my seminars that today’s indie filmmaker has to be in this for the long haul. If they’re not, they should sell their scripts to the studios or go into another line of work.

Jason Brubaker
Yeah. One of the things filmmakers struggle with first is actually making the movie. After that, making a return on investment. We aren’t selling ice cream in an Arizona summer.

Norman Berns
It’s that brutal. The universe may have films that will sell themselves, but most of us aren’t that lucky.  We need a plan and we need to implement it.

Jason Brubaker
In your upcoming workshops, you will help filmmakers figure out how to match their scripts and their funding. Can you describe why this is important?

Norman Berns
When I started my very first job (in a drug store), Nate Pickman screamed his gruff but sage “advice.” “You can’t shove two pounds of shit in a one-pound bag!”  I think a lady huffed out of the store before I could bag her toiletries.  But I’ve carried that line with me ever since.

Jason Brubaker
I know at least one producer who learned some of those lessons. (Yes, I’m talking about myself here.)

Norman Berns
You can’t make a five million dollar film for five thousand.  Or even for four million. I work with people all the time who can’t quite raise all the money they need to make their movie.  So they try to squeeze it all in anyway. Something’s gotta give.

Jason Brubaker
Like your lights. Your stunt crew. Your FX folks. Transpo. Craft Services.

Norman Berns
Ha. Yes. Now, of course, if the money is really close, it’s possible to just shoot a few longer days.  Or maybe shoot a bit faster for a while.  Problem is, if you do that for too long, your film just keeps getting worse and worse.  And the more you do it, the worse your film becomes. Until you end up with a broken bag and shit all over the cutting room floor.

Jason Brubaker
I’m so glad you brought us back to that. OK. So let’s say you start out to create a five million dollar epic and you can only raise four million… Then what?

Norman Berns
There’s a very simple solution to this. But filmmakers see it as the worst possible step they could take.  It’s not.  And they’ll be a lot happier if they do it.

Jason Brubaker
Okay Norman. I just hope this doesn’t involve another broken bag of something. What is it?

Norman Berns
I’m not going to tell you that.  That’s why I’m teaching a whole class….

Jason Brubaker
Such anticipation. Come on.

Norman
Okay, I’ll tell. Cut the script.

Jason Brubaker
Ouch. You gotta be off your rocker!

Norman
Right? WHAT! BLASPHEMY, they scream…. Nonsense. Unless you’re shooting “My Dinner with Andre” you have too many characters in your film. Too many locations, too. And unless you’re an old (and successful) hand at this, cut ten pages out of your script right now. I’ve never seen a script – never – that couldn’t be improved with some serious trimming.

Jason Brubaker
Cut the fat.

Norman Berns
Of course! If you have all the money in the world, you can just wait and throw those sections out when you’re in the edit suite. But unless you’re selling grandma’s diamond tiara to pay for your film, the script has to be trimmed before you begin. That’ll get the film back on budget – whatever that budget may be.  And you’ll have a better movie, too

Jason Brubaker
Would you say that projected Return On Investment also plays a part in budget size?

Norman Berns
Well, yes and no.  I mean to say, it shouldn’t. I want to make ART, so I really shouldn’t have to care what the ROI might be.

Jason Brubaker
Wait Norman – I need to remind you that your potential investors can read this.

Norman Berns
Oh, of course. Right. People with money… They care a lot about stuff like that.  So, in that case, the two have to match. I have to prove, at least on paper – that THIS film, MY film is a better investment than YOUR film.

Jason Brubaker
I guess I better get the fancy paper.

Norman Berns
Nothing is simple. Distribution is like the old wild west. There’s a new outpost every day.  And allies are few and far between. But if the projected ROI doesn’t fit the budget, it’s possible that budget is just too high. But it’s also possible the work has been done correctly and there are still more outlets for the film.

Jason Brubaker
More and more every day.

Norman Berns
Who would have thought that distribution on a cell phone would make economical sense?  Who would have thought that a film would be viewable at all on a cell phone? But you know, it does and it is. No, today’s version isn’t made for Avatar. But I routinely watch trailers on my Droid before I go off to the movies.

Norman Berns
ReelGrok is about to start optimizing websites for filmmakers so then can deliver videos on a mobile platform.  (Yeah, there is a formatting problem right now, but the solution is pretty easy.)

Jason Brubaker
You have a lot of experience helping filmmakers prepare business plans for their movie projects. Why is this important?

Norman Berns
Jason, would you give me a million dollars?  Aw, come on, man, please…? COME ON, I said please…. If you had the money and wanted to invest, I’ll bet you’d want to know what I wanted to do with your money.

Jason Brubaker
How about a wrap party and a premiere?

Norman Berns
Ha! Right. But also who’s involved and what the chances are for making a profit. Stuff like that. That’s a business plan. It’s just a simple outline of how someone plans to do business. And what’s for sale. And how there might be a profit.

Jason Brubaker
Thanks for emphasizing the words “might make a profit.”

Norman Berns
It is the right time for the filmmaker to start worrying about all the realities. Why is THIS film going to make money? Who wants to see it? How will income be gathered? Too many filmmakers rush to get started and never asked the most important questions first. Business plans give them that structure.

Jason Brubaker
There are some filmmakers who try to appeal to all audiences with a “four-quadrant movie.” According to some brilliant people in the studios, this type of movie appeals to all audience demographics. Would you also suggest that indie filmmakers try to appeal to everyone for maximum return on investment?

Norman Berns
LOL. Actually, that would be more like ROTFLOL.

Jason Brubaker
I have no idea what ROTFLOL means… Wait. Rolling on the floor laughing out loud?

Norman Berns
I saw a business plan for a film like that. “This film has been designed to appeal to men and women all over the world, from 16 to 60 and older….” I laughed so hard I never got past page one.

Jason Brubaker
That makes sense, since you were rolling on the floor. But all kidding aside, what do you suggest filmmakers do to make sure their business plan is chalked full of realistic expectations?

Norman Berns
I’d suggest that all filmmakers, indies included, appeal to THEIR audience. There are enough people in this world to make a huge audience for almost every possible subject. But try to appeal to everyone and the odds are good you’ll appeal to no one.

Jason Brubaker
A little controversy never hurts either.

Norman Berns
I was delighted to read that the Tea Baggers are out in force, picketing “Avatar” because it’s anti-genocide or some such boneheaded thing. Even a film that good, even a film that simple and direct can’t appeal to everyone.

Jason Brubaker
When raising money for movies, I noticed a lot of filmmakers take an ad on Craig’s List or some other public forum asking for investment dollars. Why is this not a good idea?

Norman Berns
It’s illegal. And investors don’t generally read Craig’s List for financial advice.

Jason Brubaker
What general advice do you have for someone with big dreams but no idea how to get started?

Norman Berns
Filmmaking has a hundred years of history. Start with that, then get back to me. Read every film book you can find. Read the scripts of successful movies. Listen to every film conversation you can hear, watch every movie over and over again until the story is gone and you can see (and understand) the individual shots.  Get a job on a film set. Get a job in an editing room.

Jason Brubaker
Fetch coffee…

Norman Berns
Right! If after all that, you’re still serious about film, buy a decent still camera. Shoot your first film entirely in stills. Lay them out one by one, like a gigantic storyboard. You’ll learn a lot about what you should have shot, what you didn’t need to shoot, what you need to do again. It’s incredibly inexpensive and provides great training.

Jason Brubaker
And it’s good fun.

Norman Berns
I have no patience for people with big eyes and no reality. Everyone has dreams. Only the smart, sharp, hardworking survive.

Jason Brubaker
How can filmmakers find out more about your upcoming Filmmaking Seminar?

Norman Berns
They can call me on the phone and ask me. 612-928-9900. Or send me an email. The stuff in this particular class is especially important. I know if filmmakers take this course, they’ll learn things that will affect their entire careers. It’s that important a class.

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