If you want to be an independent filmmaker in today’s rapidly changing environment, you face a very steep learning curve. Even experienced filmmakers are throwing up their hands in despair, and if I see another death-of-cinema article in a national magazine I think I’m going to scream.
There is a big disconnect going on in the film world right now. More films are being produced than ever before in history, but movie theaters are going out of business like crazy, particularly in smaller towns and cities that don’t have art-house cinemas.
Our view of the movie industry is warped by the Hollywood blockbuster mentality and by the celebrity-worship that passes for arts coverage in the major media. Unless it has mega-millions behind it, unless it has some kind of celebrity endorsement, we think it’s not worth paying attention to. So, theaters go dark while great movies go unseen.
Independent filmmakers like me have to learn from our mistakes, and pass along our experiences to others so that they might avoid some of the same pitfalls. With that, here are some things I’ve learned, and some things I plan to do differently from now on.
1. Strive for higher production values. Although production quality alone can’t carry a film, audiences expect — and deserve — well-lit, well-framed and well-edited footage with good sound. Now that I’ve seen Troubadour Blues another 50 or so times, I realize that my shooting style was a little too run-and-gun for my own good. There are some shaky shots that looked OK on a 19″ edit monitor, but induce motion sickness when blown up onto a movie screen. Also, it’s MiniDV footage in 480i standard definition — all I had to work with when I began shooting back in 2002, but now a definite drawback in terms of marketability. Now that even mobile phones include high definition video, HD is a must. The higher resolution makes for a tighter projected image, and the higher color sampling rate makes for much more attractive images. I’m shooting “720p” rather than “1080i” (the broadcast standard) because it’s softer and more film-like than the harsh, unnatural look of 1080. And I bought a set of battery-powered LED lights, which fit into a camera bag but cover a multitude of lighting situations.
2. Develop a more realistic business plan and update it frequently. I did write a proposal for Troubadour Blues back in 2002 — you can read it here — but it was wildly optimistic about completion and distribution, and frankly it wouldn’t have made a very good documentary. It lacked a compelling central character, a story arc, the whole human element that makes a film worth watching. Also, I had no idea what I was going to do with the film once I finished it. I naively expected to get into Sundance and SXSW and Tribeca and be picked up by a distribution company. I am working on a proposal and business plan for Don’t Give Up Your Day Job that I’ll publish here when it’s done. I hope it will be a more realistic road map to guide me through production and release.
3. Plan ahead for marketing and promotion. If you’re going to self-distribute your film, do what Jon Reiss suggests in Think Outside the Box Office, and plan on spending as much time and money marketing your film as you do making it. Start building a support system for your film from the first day of shooting. If you wait till the film is in post-production, you’re waiting too long. If your budget is $30,000, plan on spending at least $10,000 of it on advertising. If that doesn’t leave you with enough money to cover production costs, find a way to raise more money. Figure out your film’s ecosystem (see previous blog) and start making contact with people and organizations who are invested in the subject of your film. Cultivate these relationships right from the start and they’ll be there for you when you need them.
4. Take enough production stills. Get each actor or participant in a variety of close-ups. Shoot candids of cast and crew on set and at production meetings. Capture a few good shots of every memorable location. Take some informal group shots. In keeping with my less-is-more philosophy, this doesn’t necessarily mean hiring a professional photographer (unless that person can fulfill another crew function); it usually means handing someone a point-and-shoot camera and asking them to take snapshots. You can’t possibly have enough production stills.
(Photo by Catherine Palladino)
Print media — particularly magazines — want good-looking and unique production stills, including key scenes from the movie if you can get them. Don’t think you can get away with frame captures from the film itself; unless you’re shooting 4K, the resolution isn’t high enough to please a finicky art director.
5. Develop key art and production design at the same time. The best example I know of this is Julien Temple’s documentary about Joe Strummer, The Future is Unwritten. In his later years, Strummer loved going to music festivals and sitting around campfires in a circle, swapping songs. Temple staged his key interviews as a series of bonfires, with banners hanging overhead. The flickering firelight is not only dramatic; it gives the interviews a unified look, and the banners-and-bonfires theme worked its way into posters and ads for the final product. I’m getting a flag made for Don’t Give Up Your Day Job in the same design as Commodore Perry’s famous flag from the Battle of Lake Erie, and I’ll use it in the background of action sequences and musical production numbers, wherever I can work it in.
6. Go easy on music requiring sync rights. Without going into a lengthy dissertation on music rights, filmmakers have to deal with two kinds: mechanicals, which cover master recordings, and publishing, which covers words and musical arrangement. Troubadour Blues has 40 music cues, but uses only one master recording, Mark Erelli’s song that gave me the film’s title. Fortunately, Mark owns that master and we were able to work out a satisfactory licensing arrangement. About half of the 39 songs remaining were administered by a single publishing entity, Bug Music (now part of BMG/Chrysalis). The folks at Bug have been extremely cooperative and I got an extremely good royalty rate, but it still represents a significant cost, about 20% of net sales. Because the new film profiles little-known musicians, I’m going to feature their own originally written music and enforce a strict “no covers” policy — even if one of the bands plays a killer version of, say, “Mustang Sally,” it’s not going in the film.
7. Always, without fail, get signed release forms at the time of shooting. The cosmos gave me a good tweaking over this one. There was one famous Texas singer-songwriter who gave me an interview back in 2006, no problem. But when I sent copies of the rough cut to each of the artists in the film, with a consent form for the finished film, this artist’s manager claimed that he’d never given consent to the interview, read me the riot act about how I was using this artist’s name to promote my film, and demanded that I take him out of the final cut. Now, this very same manager had helped me set up the interview and even given me directions to the interview location, but without a signed release I didn’t have a leg to stand on. He isn’t in the film.