You want to be a successful filmmaker, but you’re a nobody in nowheresville with no connections.
Well, the Duplass Brothers started out just the same way, and now they are admired, household names in the independent film world. How did they do it? On the ground at SXSW 2015, No Film School covered Mark Duplass’ entertaining keynote address on his career and compiled it into an easy-to-follow 9-step plan.
[Update] The full keynote has been uploaded online and we've added it above.
As he described it in his Keynote address, Mark Duplass started his career in Austin, where he and his brother Jay had lots of ideas and excitement about filmmaking, but absolutely no connections. After enough odd editing jobs, they had raised enough money to shoot a feature for $65k. Unfortunately, as Mark characterized it, the film they made was “a steaming pile of dog diarrhea.”
Instead of giving up, Duplass started over by making short films that recaptured the feeling he and his brother had making movies for fun as kids. Twelve or so years later, Mark and Jay Duplass are icons of independent filmmaking. Too bad there’s not some formula we could follow to replicate their success. Wait, there is!
Step 1: Find Your Voice by Playing Around
Shoot a scene or a few minutes of a film every weekend with your friends, and have fun. For each minute, maybe there was one second of something that really worked. Throw the rest out, and keep that in mind. Whether it takes two weeks or two years, these seconds will add up and you’ll know what your voice is as a filmmaker. Duplass says:
“Maybe after two weeks or maybe after two years, maybe you will have something unique to offer."
Step 2: Make a Self-Indulgent Short Film Using Your Voice
“Make a self indulgent film for your first movie. You don’t need to be ashamed of yourself. You have no access to actors, you just have yourself. Go with it.”
And make sure it is a short film. The short film needs to come first. Note: you should definitely get a good day job that lets you make money and still have a flexible schedule.
“It really doesn’t matter what your movie looks like. If you have an interesting film voice, people at festivals will notice even if you’re nobody.”
Step 3: Take Your Short Film to Festivals and Build Your Community
Get your short film into whatever festivals you can, then go to the festivals and meet people you like, and want to work with in the future. Meet programmers who will want to program you in the future -- like when you come back with a feature. Maybe even get an agent.
"Community is created by traveling to film festivals to meet people. Find out what you are good at, do that as a short, and grow from there."
Step 4: Make a Feature for $1,000
Write a script with a feel of your short for a very, very small amount of money. Get lights from the local hardware store, cameras from the local electronics store and return them after production if you have to. Duplass urges filmmakers instead to "reverse engineer a film based on what you have access to."
"At this point, your agent might say, 'Don't do that. I can get you money.' Don't. You will spend five years in development, because you're a short filmmaker with nothing behind you.
Step 5: Get Your Film in Front of Celebrities like "Randy Hercules"
Once you make your feature, you need to get celebrities at film festivals to watch it so that hopefully one of them will like it and want to work with you.
One of the actors will respond. Maybe it's "Randy Hercules" who has a 20-year show on CBS, is rich, and is depressed. He's dying to do something creative!
Then when you are talking to your Randy Hercules, you can offer to build him a role based on whatever he wanted to play but has never had the chance to.
Step 6: Make Another $1,000 Film with "Randy Hercules"
Make an extremely inexpensive movie with your Randy Hercules, and maybe you'll get into a top tier festival this time. Offer Randy 20% of the backend (and hope he gives it back to you) and 10% to your crew. Just by having him in it alone, assuming it isn't really awful, you can now expect to make $50k back of your $1k.
Don't be attached to showing your early movies in a theater. It's important instead to own VOD rights. Don't be afraid of VOD
Step 7: Make a TV Show with Randy Hercules and His Friends
Now that you've made a movie that's made some money back, you can sell a pitch to a network. But according to Duplass, it's not likely that you'll make it because of turn around and development quagmires. But you just learned something about the fact that you sold a pitch.
"Hmm. I can make my own movie with Randy Hercules, plus his friends, and license it back to TV."
Duplass says go ahead and make your episodes. You will sell them to a hungry outlet.
Step 8: Help Your Friends Make Their Movies
Now that you are successfully making money off making films, your friends will all want to make their own $1000 movie too. Help them do it!
"They will help lift you up later when you eventually make a film that isn't so good. Say ok, because you're a communist, and it's a write off."
Step 9: Give Yourself the Chance to Be Happy
At every step of this process, you've been waiting for a landslide of success, the feeling that, as Duplass terms it, "The Cavalry is Coming!" But at every step, you will eventually learn that no matter what you are sure is really happening, the cavalry "is not coming." And while Duplass says you may be pretty tired from having to work so hard to self-generate all your success, you should be proud.
"You look at career, and you think 'not bad.' So how is it possible that the cavalry is not coming? The good news is: who gives a fuck about the cavalry?"
It might be a winding journey, but would you follow these 9 steps?