Why We Shot a Teaser for My First Feature Film 'CENTS' a Year Before Making the Feature
Here on NFS, I have been fortunate to share screenwriting lessons I have learned from professional screenwriters as well some of my own experiences as I strive to hone my craft. I'm also a regular reader of NFS, learning so much about all areas of filmmaking and the industry from my fellow NFS writers. Today, I'm excited to share with you a recently released teaser for CENTS, which will be my first feature film. The thing is, we haven't made the film yet. So, in addition to sharing the teaser with you, I'd like to tell you why we shot a teaser before actually shooting the feature film.
Before we get to the teaser, let me tell you a little bit about story. CENTS is the story of Sammy, an uncommonly smart twelve-year-old girl who uses her gift for mathematics and enlists her frenemies to revamp the school penny drive into a major moneymaking operation. As Sammy steers the penny drive scheme to her own advantage, she struggles in her relationships with her single mother – who tries to keep Sammy from repeating her own mistakes – and her math teacher – who attempts to nurture Sammy's mathematical prowess despite her resistance.
As I've mentioned here on NFS before, CENTS was a 2012 Academy Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting semifinalist. CENTS is also currently in the second round of the 2014 Sundance Institute Screenwriting Lab selection process.
The Evolution of the Story
According to my story notes, I came up with the original concept for CENTS back in 2009. I pursued the story in earnest in the second half of 2010, starting the first draft of the screenplay in late 2010 and finishing it in January 2011. After a few initial rewrites, the story of CENTS wouldn't let go of my imagination. By the fall of 2011, I decided I would make it as my feature film debut (I actually write for NFS today because I discovered this website as part of my research on Kickstarter in 2011). I rewrote CENTS extensively in early 2012, which led to the Nicholl semifinalist placement, while I researched avenues for financing.
Why Shoot a Teaser?
Before I get into the reasons why we shot a teaser for CENTS, let's take a look at the teaser itself:
I mainly decided to shoot a teaser because I wanted to create a mood/tone film that was specific to the story that would convey the style of the film and a hint of the A-story. I had several more specific goals in mind when putting together the teaser:
- Build an audience for CENTS before making the film: Putting together the initial audience for CENTS now will help us make the film by demonstrating demand to potential investors, preparing our initial audience for a successful Kickstarter campaign, and spreading the word about an upcoming feature film that focuses on girls, mathematics and relational aggression (bullying.)
- Create a short piece to show potential investors the tone and visual style of the future feature film: Most people don't want to read a screenplay. Even professional screenwriters don't typically want to read someone else's screenplay. Even if a potential investor wants to read one, understanding how the screenplay turns into the final film is a skill that most people outside of the film industry don't possess. Potential investors want to see what the movie will be. The teaser gives them a taste for the visual style and the mood of CENTS in 90 seconds -- an amount of time most people are willing spend to consider the story for a new film.
- Demonstrate progress to the TFI Sloan Filmmaker Fund before reapplying for a grant this year: Last year, my fellow producer Ella Sitkin and I submitted CENTS for a grant from the Tribeca Film Institute Sloan Filmmaker Fund. While we didn't get the grant, TFI contacted us throughout their decision-making process to get updates on our project and encouraged us to reapply this year after we make some more significant progress. We've finished our business plan, launched our LLC, invested our own money, reached out to potential investors and planned a future Kickstarter campaign. The teaser sits at the heart of all of these activities to demonstrate progress. The teaser is progress.
How to Tease a Story in 90 Seconds
With only approximately 90 seconds, no dialogue and no voiceover, it is impossible to tell the whole story of CENTS. In fact, very important supporting characters who are prominently featured in the screenplay and crucial to Sammy’s journey, including Sammy’s mother and her mathematics teacher, aren’t in the teaser, because it’s simply too much information. Logistically, it also would have meant finding additional talent, and I really wanted to focus my directing efforts on our young cast.
I created a shot list of approximately 20 shots, which ultimately became mini-scenes, plucked from the A-story of CENTS. Again, I didn’t plan to tell the whole story, but instead wanted to tease the story just enough to pique viewers' interest and stir their emotions. Also, by creating shots from story beats throughout the entire script, the teaser gives the sense of a complete film, which we hope will help supporters and potential investors get a sense of the future feature.
One drawback to this approach, however, is some people think we’ve already completed the film! That means we have to work extra hard to get the message out around the teaser that we still need to make CENTS, and we need our audience's help to spread the word.
No Dialogue, No Voiceover
I imagined this as a true teaser in the style of teasers that only show audiences a series of images along with music with no dialogue or voiceover to evoke certain emotions and pique viewers’ curiosity. I also wanted to get people to visit our website and start building an audience for CENTS -- if we pique their curiosity sufficiently, then hopefully people will come to the website to learn more about the story. If people come to the website to learn more about the story, hopefully they will join our mailing list, spread the word and help us make CENTS. Also, since I actively promote myself first and foremost as an aspiring screenwriter, I wanted the focus of the teaser to be visual to get supporters to think of me as a director as well.
The advantage of no dialogue on set meant the ability to shoot MOS and move quickly between setups. The disadvantage of no dialogue was the challenge for our young lead actresses to give realistic, emotional reactions on camera. To help our young talent, I wrote very short dialogue exchanges to get on-camera reaction shots. We also specifically used the end of takes after their dialogue to get the emotional beats we wanted without words.
Why Not Shoot a Short Film Instead of a Teaser?
That is a great question and I think shooting a short to generate interest in a feature is a great approach. Just check out Ryan’s excellent short film AMATEUR, a prequel to his feature MANCHILD. Many of my favorite independent films followed this strategy (Bottle Rocket, Raising Victor Vargas, Gowanus, Brooklyn leading to Half Nelson, plus many others).
I’m personally investing money in the feature film CENTS. For my particular case, I weighed my options and I decided that the money and time I would spend making a prequel short for it would be better spent on the feature itself. This led to the idea of shooting a teaser, working with my producer Ella, our director of photography Corey Weintraub, and our editor Reuben Finkelstein, to make a piece that would help us get the movie made without spending a ton of money.
I am sincerely grateful for their efforts as well as the hard work of our talented young cast and crew to make this teaser. Please check out our entire cast and crew credit list so they get the recognition they deserve.
'We', Not 'I': Making CENTS, the Feature Film
This post is full of sentences that begin with 'I'. Yes, I did write the screenplay and yes, I plan to direct the feature film, but the film and the teaser like all film projects are collaborative efforts. The eager, hard-working crew for the teaser doesn't exist without our producer Ella. The wonderful profile shot of Sammy reflected in the whiteboard, her mind illuminated by the "sun" doesn't happen without our DP Corey. The reimagined progression of the story in the teaser's montage doesn't materialize without our editor Reuben. The performances on-screen don't come to life without our talented cast. The feature film CENTS doesn't happen without the support of many, many people.
Our goal is to put together the financing for CENTS from a variety of sources -- from investors to Kickstarter to grants to my own wallet -- over the next several months. You can help. Please check out our website here. Join our mailing list for updates on our progress. Spread the word. Help us make CENTS.
What strategies have you used to pitch your future feature film to potential investors, grant organizations and target audiences? Do you have (constructive) criticism for our story and approach? Share your thoughts on the CENTS teaser and your own experiences in the comments.
Link: CENTS website