1. Write the Feature. 2. Make a Short. 3. Get the Feature Made. (Coming Soon: a MANCHILD Short)
UPDATE: In response to some of the (heated! opinionated!) questions and comments on this post, we did a long video Q&A as well.
I wrote recently about finishing the screenplay for my feature MANCHILD (for now… ), but it’s been a while since I talked about what else is going on in the trenches of first-time feature filmmaking. The title of the post gives it away: we’re making a short. Why are we doing this? And why do I think this strategy makes a lot of sense for other first-time feature directors? Because there are millions of people with a screenplay, all trying to figure out how to get from here (words on a page) to there (actual finished movie). If your goal seems impossibly far off, that’s when it’s time to bite off a smaller chunk and show what you’re capable of.
“What have you directed lately?”
When someone likes your script, the next logical question you’re going to be asked as a writer-director is, “what have you directed lately?” If you’ve never directed before… you’re probably going to have a hard time getting your feature made. If you have directed before but your material is of a different genre than your feature script, if it’s in a different style, if it’s dated technologically, if it was of a different (or non-existent) budget level… you’re also probably going to have a hard time getting your feature made. I’m in all of the latter situations, as my no-budget, black-and-white, stylized “urban western” web series I co-directed with Zack Lieberman, The West Side — which I shot myself in 2007-2008 in standard-definition black-and-white — is still what I”m known for today (the only other thing I might throw on a reel is my RED SCARLET camera test, and that was done under even more limited conditions than TWS — except we had a better camera).1
So, despite the script for MANCHILD garnering some prestigious grants and other selections:
A good script is not enough
Put yourself in the shoes of a talented actor. For your next project you have dozens of scripts from which to choose, from big-budget studio films all the way down to no-budget student projects. Some of them have financing attached, some of them are shooting soon, some of them have other (possibly star) actors attached, and some of them are just at the script stage with no firm attachments or schedule. It’s highly unlikely you’re going to move the ones that are “just a script” to the top of the pile.
Therefore our goal as directors is to get as many elements in place on a project — producers, talent, crew, schedule, financing, locations — to make the film as real as possible, in order to help bring talent on board. But it’s a catch-22 — you might need talent attached to raise the financing, and you might need financing attached to get the talent. What’s a filmmaker to do?
“This is going to be good.”
That’s what you want a producer/actor/agent/etc. to think when they read your script or hear your pitch. Not “this could be good.” Every script is execution dependent, and there are plenty of projects out there that could be good. You want to put together a package that makes someone think, “this is going to be good with or without me. I want to be a part of it.”
With that in mind, in addition to the MANCHILD screenplay, I’ve put together a mood reel (we’ve looked at the sizzle reels of several other directors as well), director’s statement, hypothetical cast list, potential budget, and I’m putting together a marketing plan now as well. But while these materials are nice to have, they are more likely to help someone see how the project could work — they’re less likely to convince them that it’s going to be good. To really show something, it’s time to:
Make a short
Mood/sizzle reels are nice, but they generally consist of materials made by someone else. To really demonstrate your vision for the feature, the best approach may be to bite off a smaller chunk of the full-length story and make a short out of it. It could be an actual sequence from the feature script, it could explore a minor character or incident from the feature in greater depth, or it could be an entirely new prequel/sequel/tangential storyline. The end goal is to make something that demonstrates your abilities and helps potential producers/talent/investors better see the finished feature film in their heads. Thus the steps are, to reiterate:
- Write the Feature.
- Make a Short.
- Get the Feature Made.
MANCHILD and raising additional financing
One reason to make a short is to help raise financing to make the feature. Of course, I already ran a Kickstarter campaign for MANCHILD, so why make a short if the financing is already in place? Let’s take a look at what I wrote on the MANCHILD Kickstarter page:
Movies are really expensive; Hollywood spends $100 million on making a single movie all the time. So believe me when I say it’s going to be a challenge to make this for “only” $115k! Especially because it’s a sports movie — it’s not one guy in a room talking, it’s a lot of people running through carefully choreographed actions in a gymnasium in front of a crowd of spectators. I drew up the budget below myself, but note that I am NOT a producer. Once there’s a producer attached, they will come up with their own budget, which will undoubtedly be higher than mine, and then we’ll have to raise more money or make tough decisions about what we WANT in the film versus what we absolutely NEED.
From meeting with a number of experienced producers — indeed, one of my Kickstarter updates was titled Fifty Meetings Later — that last sentence has proved to be the case. The producer I’ve been working with is Chip Hourihan, whose (much more extensive) bio begins with:
Chip Hourihan has produced fifteen independent films in the past ten years. Frozen River, which he produced and line produced, received the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, and was nominated for two 2009 Academy Awards.
Chip has been great to work with, and he obviously brings a lot of experience to the table. He and the other producers I’ve met with have all felt the same way — that there is really no way to make this feature as written with JUST the Kickstarter funds. Could we get something in the can? Absolutely — but we’d have to cut out a lot, and I haven’t worked so hard to get to this point only to make half of a movie. The best films are greater than the sum of their parts, and if we start pulling out components, the movie as a whole will surely be a lesser work.
Shooting with a larger budget is not a matter of having luxuries on set or affording star actors. It’s a matter of doing the story justice: being able to give us enough time on set to get convincing performances, being able to capture the basketball as written (the sports scenes are a vital part of the piece as a whole), and being able to include the sub-plots, minor characters, themes, and arcs that I’ve constructed very carefully over the past two years.
This section isn’t easy to write, because I can hear this hypothetical comment ahead of time: “Wait, you got us all to give you money so you could make your movie and now you say you need MORE money?” Sure, but I’m not asking for more money on Kickstarter; we’re looking to raise more financing to make MANCHILD by augmenting the Kickstarter funds with traditional independent film financing. Most Kickstarter campaigns only cover part of a film’s production, not the entirety of it, and this one is no different.
Any working filmmaker understands — when it comes down to it, you’re chiefly concerned with doing what’s best for your film. You can’t get caught up in thinking about what people are going to say, how it’s going to look to outsiders, and whether you’re going to get someone’s goat.2 If you have goats, believe me, I’m not trying to get them. Unless you have a lot of them, in which case we could maybe sell them and finance the rest of the movie. So let us know if you have a lot of goats!
Three great examples of shorts that led to features
Making a short to help get a feature made isn’t a new approach by any means; I’m not claiming any credit for it. Here are three great examples.
Five Feet High and Rising –> Raising Victor Vargas
Five Feet High and Rising received the Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking at Sundance in 2000 and the resulting feature Raising Victor Vargas was selected for the 2002 Cannes film festival as well as the 2003 Sundance film festival.
From producer Ted Hope, in a post fittingly titled First The Feature (Script), Then The Short:
[Anna Boden] and Ryan Fleck had been inspired by Peter Sollet’s RAISING VICTOR VARGAS and the prize-winning short that preceded it 5 FEET HIGH & RISING. They had written the HALF NELSON script and in trying to figure out how to do a short that could help get the feature made they decided to shift the focus away from the focus on the teacher (later played by Ryan Gosling in the feature) and put in on Shareeka Epps the student (and who stars in each the short and feature).
Here’s the resulting short, Gowanus, Brooklyn, which helped Boden and Fleck get Half Nelson made:
Gowanus, Brooklyn –> Half Nelson
Similar to Five Feet/Victor Vargas, Gowanus, Brooklyn premiered at the 2004 Sundance film festival and took home the Jury Prize for Short Filmmaking; Half Nelson premiered at the 2006 Sundance film festival, was a box-office success (grossing $4.6 million worldwide versus a reported $700,000 budget), and took home several Independent Spirit Awards; lead Ryan Gosling was also nominated for an Oscar.
Compared to the example of Gowanus/Nelson, I’m attempting to do the opposite with MANCHILD as far as the characters are concerned — whereas the short focuses on the kid and the feature is about the adult, my short is about an adult and the feature is about the kid. I didn’t actually realize how closely I’m hewing to these past approaches until writing this post, because while it just so happens that both of these shorts are portraits of urban youth (one even holding a basketball!), the example that first came to my mind when I was planning a short was in fact Sean Durkin’s Mary Last Seen, a short that played Sundance and helped get the Ted Hope-produced Martha Marcy May Marlene off the ground. Here’s a brief trailer for Mary Last Seen:
Mary Last Seen –> Martha Marcy May Marlene
However, the short isn’t available online (it can be seen on the MMMM DVD/Blu-ray). Which brings us to a topic we’ve talked about before here on NFS:
Festival vs. Online Distribution (for shorts)
While we riffed on it here, I highly recommend Short of the Week’s full case study on the topic of releasing a short online versus playing at festival(s). The topic gets a bit more specific if you’re making a short with the goal of getting a feature made; in this situation, there are a few approaches you could take with a short to garner maximum interest and/or exposure:
- Show it privately to prospective producers, financiers, and talent
- Premiere at a (preferably well-known) film festival and leverage the prestige
- Release it online and try to get it in front of as many people as possible
These options are not mutually exclusive. For example, you could premiere at a festival for the laurels (and the chance to potentially pick up an award), and then after that show it privately to prospective investors. Or you could premiere at a festival (or three) and then after that move on to widespread online distribution.
But there’s another consideration: your production timeline. Submitting to a festival brings with it a delay of a few months while you wait to see if you got in; furthermore, the festival you think is right for your short may have already come and gone, or it may remain several months off. During this waiting period, you can’t show it online — most festivals will not allow your film to play online before it premieres at their festival (understandable). So depending on when you’re looking to shoot your feature, it may not make sense to wait months before you can show your short anywhere.
In the case of MANCHILD, the feature is almost certainly a summer shoot because that’s when kids are out of school; if we want to shoot during the school year, we would have to hire tutors and provide schooling for the duration of the shoot, and that could add significantly/prohibitively to our budget. I’d like to shoot MANCHILD this coming summer, as opposed to next. And that means we’re on a tight timeline with the short, which means film festivals don’t make sense. For example, the Tribeca Film Festival is one of the top film festivals here in New York; it even has an ESPN Sports Film Festival component, which makes a lot of sense for MANCHILD. It would be great to have the short play at Tribeca, especially in light of the fact that MANCHILD received a grant from Tribeca! But the deadline to apply to the festival was in November, and the festival itself is in mid-April. So as much as I’d love to play there — assuming the short got in, no easy feat — we would’ve needed a finished short by November, which was when I was just starting to write it. Therefore:
Coming Soon: a MANCHILD Short
I’ve already written the script. We’re casting as we speak. We’ll be shooting in a couple of weeks and I’m going to put some long hours in the edit room to fast-track post-production so we can get it out there — online, available for anyone to see and share — ASAP.
The reason to make this short is not only to help raise financing. It’s to make everything about the project better: to help with talent attachments, to gain credibility in the basketball world, to launch the MANCHILD website (there isn’t one at present), to hone my own on-set chops on a shooting pace similar to that of the feature, to find potential collaborators for the feature, and to generally raise the profile of the project. If you’re thinking about putting together a short that ties into a feature, many of these reasons will likely be similar for you as well!
In response to the comments below, I did a follow-up Q&A as well.
- This lack of director’s reel material is due to two main things: one, launching and growing this site over the last three years equated to a full-time job much of the time, and two, working on a number of screenplays (MANCHILD in 2011-2012, 3rd Rail in 2009-2010, and a few other incomplete scripts along the way) also equated to a full-time job… sometimes at the same time as the full-time job of growing NFS. I wouldn’t change anything about my approach and decisions over the past few years — I learned a lot of valuable lessons and have grown a lot as a screenwriter — but everything comes with inherent sacrifices and the casualty in this case was my director’s reel of recent work. [↩]
- Speaking of getting someone’s goat: this should go without saying, but all of the Kickstarter money is still in the bank, untouched (except what I had to pay in taxes, which is another issue that deserves its own post… coming soon). So it turns out that the minor controversy over me buying a camera would’ve been moot even if I HAD used the Kickstarter funds — which, again, I didn’t — since, by virtue of sub-renting the camera through a rental house, the SCARLET is now paid off. By the time we’re shooting the feature I’ll have hopefully spent negative money on the SCARLET, which makes it hard to argue with that purchasing decision! [↩]
- My Entire Life Has Been Leading Up to This. Will You Help Me Make My First Feature Film?
- Leaving It All on the Court with 24 Hours Left: Everything I've Done to Promote #Manchild
- Coming Soon: a RED SCARLET Micro-Short