I believe every film has its own path -- some are just more narrow and curvy and bumpy than others.
My name's Marcus Mizelle, writer, director and producer of industry satire Actor For Hire. To get our movie to a sustainable place and with a very limited amount of money to work with required a very specific set of adjustments and expectations from the very beginning. We had $50K to spend on the entire thing which had to cover prep, shooting, post, marketing and delivery. The overall objectives with this project were to 1.) raise the career profiles of all involved, 2.) tell an authentic yet colorful story of a struggling actor in Hollywood, and 3.) increase chances of return on investment with a creative campaign and low overhead.
Here's how we did it -- from A to Z:
3 quick things to remember throughout your entire process -- obvious but crucial:
- Be determined: Every "no" is only temporary. Incentivize people to get what you need.
- Be creative: Especially once the film itself is complete. Getting people to care about and eventually buy the film is the real trick.
- Be grateful: Appreciation for the many helping hands and favors along the way is a no-brainer.
A to Z
A: ABSORB & READ UP: Learn everything you can from sites that target the low and micro budget filmmaker. Soak up everything and make your own assessments -- apply what feels right to what you think your brand of filmmaking is. Know your strengths as a filmmaker and play to them.
B: BRAINSTORM: Decide on a strong, clear concept, characters and story world. Also think about genre, subgenre(s), culture, etc. Start small and write the first 5-10 pages first. Also look at similar films that have found success and use them as inspiration. As soon as I realized our film was about persona and could benefit from accessing disguise comedy elements, I soaked up films such as Tootsie and Some Like It Hot. Also take inspiration from real life: I did so by deciding to write a story around my friend and actor Jesse O'Neill, who was a struggling actor at the time. A likable guy who just can't catch a break is Comedy 101.
C: CASH OUT & MAKE A WEB SERIES PILOT: With whatever money you have or can raise, bring it to life and find your tone, story potential, etc. Make a second episode as well. We raised around $500 on Kickstarter.
D: DEVELOP THE SCRIPT & SCHEDULE: Write the best feature length screenplay you possibly can, because it will make or break the final product. It will also help determine who will ultimately decide to work with you along the way, especially since you can't pay much, if anything. Plus, it's free. Diligence and creativity cost $0. Use what you got -- I already knew most of the main actors beforehand and had them in mind as I wrote their mannerisms and likely dialogue. Also break the script apart and schedule, as usual.
E: EMAIL EVERYONE & SET UP A FACEBOOK PAGE: Reach out to the universe for help; in other words, start Facebooking and sending out emails. When I decided to move forward with the feature, I put a post out that said, "I'm making a movie this year, who's coming with me?" Next thing I know, an old Kinston, NC friend, Dustin Taylor, was the investor. Also start a Facebook page for the film and try to promote. Hope for at least 5 likes per post. Sad, I know.
F: FULLY REALIZE THE ENTIRE BUDGET: Think about what comes after the film is completed. Think about film festival submission fees, promotion expenses, shipping costs, DCPs, a publicist for the premiere, constant printing of flyers/posters/promos, etc. -- there is never enough money, but at the very least, don't make a movie no one knows about. We spent about $14K on actual production and the rest on post and marketing. It was the key difference in our success.
G: GET THE BEST CAST POSSIBLE: Other than the parts I wrote specifically for actors I already knew (such as Jesse O'Neill, Joel Hogan, Jandres Burgos, Hollie Shay), there were many day players throughout the film. I used LA Casting which is a free service on the producers end and proved time and time again to be invaluable, as long as I was descriptive and provided incentive to the non-union actors that sent in audition videos and head shots. It's a lot of work but there are many talented actors out there who just simply want to work, especially here in LA. I also had everyone keep their real first name and told them they are simply playing a version of themselves. This ensured authenticity.
H: HAVE & MAINTAIN A RESOURCEFUL MINDSET: Use the web series pilot and its second episode as the first 10 minutes of the actual film. That's 10 minutes you don't have to shoot. This was always part of the plan. We made sure we shot on the same camera (RED Scarlet) and matched as much as we could. We also already had a template for tone and style to draw upon, but we certainly focused on making it better as we went along.
I: INCENTIVIZE EVERYONE INVOLVED & MAXIMIZE PRODUCTION: It's important to think about how you're going to shoot before you're on set. Be realistic and know your limitations. Due to cast and location availability, I knew we would have to shoot in chunks as opposed to the traditional all-at-once way. 3-4 day chunks, with a week and a half prep in between. So a lot of pre-production happened simultaneously with production. I also knew that our only realistic option for shooting was to have a documentary-sized crew- essentially a tiny splinter unit the whole way. We used 3 LED lights and kept the camera on sticks. The 3-person crew was made up of myself, the DP and the Sound Mixer/Boom Op. When the DP couldn't make it, I shot it. I told myself to just do it, because the movie's already not going to be "perfect", whatever that is. What is most important is getting it done, because guess what -- there's a lot left to do. (We're only on "I"!) As for locations and cast availability changing, be flexible and expect it, especially when you have no real money to pay anyone. Replace who/where/what if needed to get it done.
J: JAZZ IT UP: Try your very best to excite people about the movie and to get them behind you and your team's hard work. Email everyone connected to the film (and one degree away), and begin building an e-newsletter. Also continue promoting on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Send thank you emails to everyone that has helped so far. Be creative. Always progress each email and post -- each MUST be better/more progressive than the last. And be grateful! (It's important to note that producer Jillian Longnecker pulled favors for most of the post production. I calculate we saved about $10K because of this.)
K: KEEP MOVING FORWARD UNTIL THE FILM IS COMPLETED: Score, sound mix, color timing, editing, test screenings, etc. Just keep your head down, your ego out of it, and do one thing at a time. Don't get discouraged and never put anything off for another day, because you will want to, especially if you have to do it all yourself. Keep an open mind during feedback -- you won't see everything that others might. But know what you want.
L: LAURELS: Submit to film festivals. It was always our plan to submit to an absurd amount -- the name of the game with this project was always to build a pedigree (screen anywhere anyone would invite us to, and hopefully have the laurels build up on our artwork as we moved forward).
M: MARKET THE MOVIE: Artwork and your trailer are everything. Get these going and make sure to knock them both out of the park. They are the 2 most important pieces of marketing you will have the rest of the way (and ultimately what got us distribution over all other elements). Also do a quick, fun Behind-The-Scenes video to post on social media to keep that buzz going.
N: NO -- GET USE TO IT: You will get rejected from film festivals. We were rejected by about 50 (of 160) film festivals before the first yes came in. Email film festivals that have not yet decided to select you. Incentivize them to screen the film. Be smart and engaging, but don't harass them too much. (Later, as the laurel and press builds, share this with the remaining undecided festivals. They will start accepting you. Some at least.)
O: ORGANIZE A POTENTIAL DISTRIBUTOR LIST: Reach out to them strategically. Know which one that makes the most sense for your film, even if they don't know yet themselves. Email them. In our case, we always wanted to go with Gravitas Ventures. I believe the key to this was to stand out among the pack by strategically sharing with them our progress as it happened. Also reach out to sales agents.
P: PREMIERE THE FILM (& GET PRESS): We were finally fortunate to be accepted by Dance With Films, where we premiered the film at the Chinese Theatre. This got us our first bit of press, and our first true bit of momentum. Throw yourself into all press opportunities and hire a publicist, at least for the first festival so you can get an idea. Later on you can send out your own press releases.
Q: QUALITY AND QUANTITY: Email thank you's to everyone involved up to this point. Email the distributors that are or might still be interested again. Email undecided film festivals, again. Put them on your e-newsletter list, so they can see the process and ongoing buzz. Send out progressive updates via your e-newsletter. Make sure to be engaging, succinct and focused with any and every email you send out. This represents your work ethic and overall product. But remember, don't be spammy. Cross your fingers and pray to the Gods above. If you work hard and smart here, it will absolutely pay off one way or another.
R: RAISE & MAINTAIN OVERALL VISIBILITY: Go to more film festivals. Print flyers, posters, business cards -- more than you think you'll need, and put them EVERYWHERE. Continuing to raise awareness and the movies brand is key.
S: SCREEN THE MOVIE AGAIN AND AGAIN: You made it so people could see it right? Screen it as much as humanely possible and continue emailing all press in every area the film will be screening. Continue promoting the film on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and e-newsletters. Be strategic and expect at least 50 likes (or more) per post. Email any and everyone who might be able to help push it forward in any way, but again, be strategic and try not to come off as spam. People hate spam. But also be shameless in telling everyone about your film -- sometimes it's the only way, and you never know who might take notice. (I know, a contradiction.)
T: TAKE THE BEST DISTRIBUTION DEAL: Respond to emails from interested distributors (in our case, Gravitas Ventures). They have seen our progress, liked our artwork and trailer and would like to distribute our movie! Their offer is reasonable so we reached out to our lawyer. After a short back and forth, we reached an overall agreement. Respond with "Yes please" and sign on the dotted line. Best feeling ever.
U: UNIFY ALL ELEMENTS & DELIVER THE FILM: Oh God, what a pain. Honestly would not have made it through this process in one piece if it weren't for producer Jillian Longnecker, who had been down this road several times on other films. So glad to have it behind me and to know what to expect in the future: chain of title, E&O insurance, closed captioning, encoding fees, contracts, deal memos, stills, trailer, film master, etc.)
V: VIDEO ON DEMAND: Finally release the film on Digital HD (iTunes, Amazon, VUDU, Google Play, etc.) and On Demand (Dish, Cox, Charter, VerizonFios, SuddenLink, etc.). Promote the hell out of this.
W: WIN AWARDS: Share your success at each film festival and be on point during Q&As by preparing general bullet points to talk about if needed. This is a great opportunity to whet peoples appetites about your film and you the filmmaker. Find new investors for future projects. We linked up with one at the Virginia Film Festival, who decided to drop a small amount in for marketing expenses, in exchange for an EP credit.
X: X MARKS THE SPOT: Target (more substantial) press and know your target audience. Continue circling back. With the marketing budget, get as much as you can and be as creative as possible in getting it. It's the difference between getting your film seen and not seen. We decided to take a full page ad out in Backstage Magazine as well as 2 digital ads in their e-newsletter, Facebook ad buys on key posts to expand the reach, mini posters up at the main Hollywood Casting Offices. Our steadfast approach has resulted in press from The Hollywood Reporter, Indiewire, Deadline, MovieMaker, The Wrap and now, No Film School, thankfully. Remember, having distribution is one thing. People knowing you have distribution is another.
Y: YOU'VE DONE IT -- SAY THANKS & CELEBRATE: Send another round of thank you's with a mini poster of the film, complete with laurels, notable press, VOD logos and quotes. Make everyone involved feel as if their time and energy was well spent. This would mean a lot to me if I were them. Use the remaining money left from marketing (that you should have set aside) for shipping, printing, etc. Then, go get drinks.
Z: ZERO IN ON WHAT MADE THE FILM SUCCESSFUL & SHARE: Reach out to sites such as this one. The least us filmmakers can do is to share our journey and hopefully help the next inspired, aspiring micro budget filmmaker.
With determination, creativity and a small amount of money, we were able to see Actor For Hire go from a web series pilot to a full length feature that screened at 25 festivals and got distribution on all the major streaming platforms, followed by much press in major outlets. Now you know how we did it. I hope at least some of the above has helped, and I wish you good luck with your next film. And don't forget to check out Actor For Hire, now available on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, Dish Network, Cox, Charter, VerizonFios and many more.