Part two of my notes from IFP's Script to Screen conference last weekend. Some real-world filmmaking questions were answered on these two panels, including, “How do you make a living as a low budget film director?” and “Can you offer advice for someone who's about to shoot a first low-budget feature?” Most of this is paraphrased, not word-for-word (often for clarity).
The Art of Selling & Storytelling
What’s the secret of convincing producers and executives to buy your latest screenplay? Or if you’re planning to write and direct (and produce!) independently, where do you find the money to develop your work? Meet the principals of major independent film companies and filmmakers of the top indie films of 2009 to hear advice on how to sell, sweet-talk and story-tell your way to get your work on screen.
Moderated by Monty Ross, Producer, DO THE RIGHT THING, JUNGLE FEVER, CROOKLYN
Jenny: The most important thing for filmmakers and production companies alike is to diversify your slate. I've seen too many filmmakers who have one passion project who take years to try and get it made and struggle year after year. ((This is so, so, so, so, so, so true. I later echoed this sentiment on my own panel, with an analogy about pizza and broccoli.)) When someone comes around you need to have multiple projects to show and sell.
John: There is no going rate for optioning scripts. You can option a script for no money, or purchase one for $100-$300k. Options are typically $5-$25k, typically on the lower end. Using the WGA pension is a benchmark, full purchase price is around $225k for a script.
Rodney: From microbudget aspect, a lot of distributors have closed, so regarding the remaining indie distributors -- IFC, Strand -- acquisition of a finished microbudget film is typically 50-100k. You should work within that budgetary realm so investors are actually making their money back.
Q: How do you make a living? Rodney: I've been successful at grant writing. I've applied to NYFA, the Jerome Foundation, etc. and used the grants to make the films. I kept overhead low, I've lived at artist's colonies where board and food is free; I teach at Cooper Union, SVA, Reelworks... all means of survival. You put together all these little pockets of money and somehow the bills get paid. But it ain't pretty.
John: For us money people, it makes sense to tell the story at a certain price point. Based on what we know, and based on the past performance of films like yours, we know it makes sense to tell this story -- at the right price point. It doesn't make sense to tell this story at a higher price point. It's all about the arithmetic. Nobody knows anything -- it's impossible to know how any film will do -- but we do know how similar films have done in the past. We have enough information that we can make an educated guess. We say, "at this price point it makes sense, who cares if it's a good movie or a bad movie?" We know we can get enough seats filled to make our money back. And that's very challenging, because emotionally, there are a lot of filmmakers out there who aren't flexibile enough to say, I can't make this movie at $4 million, so I have to make it at $2 mil. Filmmakers have to be flexible.
Rodney: I agree with the need for flexibility. You have to be that strong, that as a director you can rehearse off-set and land on set and shoot really fast with limited coverage and get it done in 24 days and still make a good movie. It's a sign that filmmakers have to up their game and pull it off. And it's harder to shoot 5-6 pages a day and it's backbreaking and everyone feels it and it's not pretty, but if you can come out of it with a movie that everyone stands by then everyone wins. As opposed to saying, I can't make this at $2 million, and then it never gets made, and you get really bitter.
Double Duty: Directing Your Own Script
The process of screenwriting both determines and is determined by directorial choices – from writing for a specific actor to adapting the script on set. How do writer-directors navigate the host of choices and decisions necessary to both write and direct their own work? Hear from micro-budget pioneers and independent film legends how they strike this delicate balance.
Moderated by Brandon Harris, Contributing Editor, FILMMAKER MAGAZINE
Ry: On any budget level, restrictions are good, studio or not. We used the restrictions. For example, we'd edit while we shot. We'd shoot for a week and then edit for three weeks and then continue shooting. We had the time and luxury to do this instead of shooting for a relentless, crazy six weeks as we did on my first project. On You Won't Miss Me we had the time to sit with the material and make sure it felt right before continuing.
Brandon: Did your scripts evolve with collaborators?
Debra: It's a gift if you have a sharp reader to ask you questions and itemize what they don't find clear. I find that level of collaboration to be especially helpful in the editing room, where people can tangibly respond to cuts.
Tze: It takes me a long time to find people that I trust. At this point I have 5 or 6 people that I always show my scripts to. I feel lucky that I have a number of people I can go to at the script stage now.
Brandon: Do you all have rituals for writing?
Tze: When I was right out of school it was easier for me to concentrate. Now I find it harder; from 10am-2pm I work on my own stuff, I'll speak to a couple of different writing partners for 3 hours each over the phone or voice chat. One of them I'd never met and I thought it was going to be really awkward, like meeting my internet boyfriend or something. And it totally was [awkward].
Ry: I need the routine of excercise, it helps me clear my mind and absorbing ideas.
Debra: The only method that's worked for me is to have a writing partner who's very set and regular, who sets the time and I have to be there. There's no shenanigans. That's been the hugest gift in my life in the last decade. Would I be able to do this on my own? I get freaked out, I don't know the answer.
Brandon: What about going between commercial and personal projects?
Tze: When it's something that you're writing or directing, you're going to be the one pushing the rock up the hill. It's going to take two years and you have to have the personal vision. I will say that there's something very refreshing about writing for hire. ABC's Cashmere Mafia was really fun. It was like a day job, you woke up, went to a room with a bunch of people telling embarrassing stories about themselves. For my commercial stuff I write with a writing partner. A lot of commercial writing is not about writing, it's about driving a car and getting along and taking meetings -- you have to get along with them really well.
Ry: I work in freelance commercials and I find it completely inspiring for my own stuff. I did America: A History of Us for the History Channel, and while finding all these amazing images for this thing, I was responding to these images on my own and setting aside things for my own projects at the same time. I think it's necessary and helpful [to do commercial work].
Q: Can you offer advice for someone who's about to shoot a first low-budget feature?
Tze: After you eat lunch, about an hour afterwards you're going to lose your mind. So drink a red bull after lunch and it'll kick in at the same time the food coma does. On a bigger note, surround yourself with people that "complete you," because there's going to be a point on the shoot where you really lose your shit.
Ry: Breathe deeply, it's going to be okay, say thank you, enjoy the people around you and the process of making it.
Tze: As the director, you set the tone on-set. If you're calm and collected, it really minimizes the possibility of on-set drama. Everyone will appreciate it.
Debra: Go through your script a few more times. Make sure there's not a single scene you feel ambivalent about. Try to do some rehearsals. There's a protocal that's been developed for bigger pictures where people just show up on the first day and everyone's meeting each other for the first time. It would behoove you to have some rehearsals for yourself, and for your DP and tech folks and crew.
Brandon: Directors are almost always on their feet. Wear comfortable shoes.
Q: How to balance making a living and working on your films that you truly want to make?
Tze: Every writer-director when they're starting out has a day job. There's no shame in it.
Ry: When I was writing my first movie I was working at a vintage clothing store at the time, because it required no mental capacity from me, and it was fun, but I needed that job to not be mentally taxing. So then I would go home after working a 6 or 8 hour shift and I had the space in my mind. And now that' I'm working a creative and taxing job I get home and I'm exhausted. It's hard.
Tze: It's a lot easier to work on creative stuff if you have no friends that you have to see.