Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Fix It On The Page, Before It Hits The Stage...

When developing a film or TV project, the most fun I have is during the development process, more specifically, the writing.  Those of us who are also writers know that this is the stage in which we have the most control over our project.  It's just me and my Movie Magic Screenwriter program on my laptop, a perfect symbiosis between creator and medium.

Once you've spit out that first draft, then the real crafting begins...rewriting.  You actually have to have something physically in existence in order to mold it to perfection.  Think about it.  You can't sculpt a statue without the clay and basic shape.  So you can't really fix your story without having a first draft already completed.  

For example, my movie Cyber Fighter currently in development at JuntoBox Films: http://www.juntoboxfilms.com/projects/cyber-fighter#.UY8_7aJBQ_w 
has been rewritten many, many times.  In order to perfect the plot, shape the characters, make the dialogue pop, etc.   I've needed to periodically fix things that were either called to my attention from re-reading it, or through staged and table readings of the script with writer and actor friends.  As the project has been moving forward, I'm also becoming aware of certain elements in the script that might be cost prohibitive.  As another example, there was a scene in an earlier draft which had live gunfire.  After doing a preliminary budget and schedule to see how this would be done during production, I realized that it was going to get pretty expensive.  Plus, the point of the scene had nothing to do with gunfire, there was actually a martial arts fight in the scene as well.   So by eliminating the live fire, I was able to cut this scene down to it's essentials, maintaining its moving the plot and story forward while cutting costs.  This before a single frame was shot.

Once you're in production, the changes you have to make on the fly are not going to save you as much as the changes you make before you've crewed up and started spending money.  Anything you shoot and end up cutting in the editing room is going to be wasted money (even if you add it back as a DVD extra), so it's better to eliminate the stuff that might not make it to the final cut.

One of the best ways to do this is with extensive previsualization.  I've mentioned this in an earlier post from 2012 about Zero Budget Pre-Vis, so I won't re-hash.  Storyboarding allows you to see your film as it will appear on screen, and you can time this with the script to see the flow.  Clunky items can be cut or eliminated, and you'd be surprised at how much you can get rid of and still have a great script.

Even after a successful fundraising campaign, you might not get all the dollars you asked for, so you may need to end up making more cuts to the script so that you can craft a schedule and budget that conforms to the funding.  It's always better to do that instead of trying to raise more money when you run out.  Always "shoot beneath your means" without sacrificing the integrity of the film.

There's no time limit for development and pre-vis.  The longer you can spend on planning, the better you'll be when the cameras start rolling!

Happy Filmmaking!

Friday, June 14, 2013

An Implosion Of The Movie Industry?

Recently, the Hollywood Reporter published this story where George Lucas & Steven Spielberg were talking about the future of the movie industry:


Do I agree with the assessment?  Not 100%.  I don't think that movies are going to end up like Broadway Productions with huge ticket prices and everything else being shown on a small screen.  In my opinion, there is a reason for the increased ticket prices and it goes back to the early 2000s.

If you recall, when digital cinema first came out, there was concern from theater exhibitors as to how they were going to fund the cost of upgrading their projectors and systems to be able to show digital movies.  Back then, the studios agreed to split the cost.  Theaters were able to recoup this cost by charging more for box office admission, and a hell of a lot more in concessions.  Almost overnight, the price of a movie ticket went up from about $8 (in Los Angeles) to $14.  That's where I think it all started.

Now, after over 10 years since the major multiplexes have converted over, you would think that they've recouped their original investment and can now lower prices to a more reasonable amount.  But this isn't the case.  Exhibitors are continuing with price gouging practices that need to stop, if they want to keep their customers coming back to the movies.

Don't get me started on the price of popcorn and soda.  I know that theaters make most of their profit from concessions since the cost of exhibiting the movies cuts into their box office revenue, but when the price of a soda and bucket of popcorn is almost the price of an entree at Morton's Steakhouse, we have a problem.  Really?  I mean, popcorn costs pennies to make.  But since movie-going audiences seem to have accepted these prices, I don't see them dropping.  In fact, concessions have gone up a lot over the past decade.

Since people are able to rent movies over the internet now, there's less of an incentive to go to the movie theater.  Sure, some movies need to be seen on a big screen, but when you can get a 72 inch flat TV from Best Buy and a kick-ass home theater system, why go to the multiplex?  To really save the movie business (from the exhibitor's side), prices need to come down.

Yes, I know there are other issues like video piracy, especially when movies are being cut digitally and without a film print.  That makes it easier for a pirate to steal a copy of the movie and distribute it illegally over the internet.  Recent work by the FBI to shut down some of the bigger offenders has certainly helped in this regard, as well as the successful legitimate downloading services like iTunes, Amazon.com and Netflix.  It's more convenient to purchase entertainment legally.  You'll always have outlaw hackers, but by making them have to work harder to steal, there's fewer folks willing to do it.

Back to the whole Broadway analogy.  Why are audiences willing to spend $100 on a ticket to a Broadway show?  Simple.  It's a live performance.  You are sharing the same room as the actors up there on stage.  It's a communal experience where both performer and audience are sharing the exact same moment in time.  You can't replace that with screened entertainment.   No matter how many monsters, explosions, shootouts, car chases, and other VFX you throw into a movie, you can't change the fact that it was photographed months if not years before, and put together in an editing room.  Every time you watch it, it will unfold in exactly the same way.  Doing it live is not only the oldest method of performing, but it's also the most unique.

That's why you don't have to worry about movies costing the same as Broadway.  After all is said and done, it's still only a movie.  Audiences know this.  At some point they are going to stop going to the movies altogether, if the industry doesn't wake up and pay attention.

Here's where I see the future.  Independent filmmakers and producers right now are coming up with better stories than your typical studio tentpole summer release.  And they're doing it for a lot less, often casting big name actors who are drawn to the material rather than a huge paycheck.  Because a lot of these movies end up winning Oscars, more and more actors are going to be willing to work in these productions.

Indie producers will "four wall" their movies, in order to qualify for the Academy, and then make most of their money back on video, Netflix, Amazon, etc.  Because they have a lower break-even point, they don't need to have a $100 million opening weekend.  Besides, most of today's big budget $100M openers actually cost over $300 million when you factor in marketing costs.  So as long as they don't drop off too much, they still make money, but the margins suck.

I predict that studios will soon discover that it costs less for them to acquire a completed independently produced film and spend $10 million marketing it, instead of making it themselves with a $150 million production budget.  Because technology has allowed small time filmmakers to produce films with really good effects and production values, very soon you will see a very commercial high concept feature film that was made for less than $5 million that looks like a $200 million movie.  Once that happens, the studios will get out of the production business (with the exception of renting out their soundstages and other studio resources to indie producers) and into a distribution only model.

So, if you're an indie filmmaker with a dream and a 5D Canon camera, be very very excited.  Soon you might find the big boys knocking on your door!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Great JuntoBox Experiment

When you have a feature film in development, one of the hardest things to do is to find the financing.  Raising money for a short film is no easy feat--when you multiply the running time by a factor of five, the budget can easily balloon to a six or seven figure amount.

Even in this day and age of digital filmmaking, the cost to shoot a feature film of professional quality can get very expensive.  The shooting schedule for a feature is several weeks, and Post Production can also be a lengthy process.  Were it not for the fact that we all have bills to pay, we might be able to pull a feature off with a mirco budget, or for free.  The last time I was able to do that, I was a teenager living at home and didn't have to worry about rent or other expenses that us adults deal with every month.

Conventional wisdom has become topsy-turvy.  In the "old days", if you wanted to make a feature film, you had to approach studios or banks for the financing.  Without being a Hollywood Insider, you had very little chance of getting your movie made.  If you had a talent for writing, you might have been able to sell or option your script to a studio, who would then package it with big name stars, and if you were lucky, the movie would be made.  If you were very lucky, the film might even have become a hit.  But chances are, you would have been bought out by the studio.

Nowadays, it is entirely possible to use crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to raise 100% of the funding for your film.  Assuming that your budget is low enough, and that you've calculated the cost of providing rewards to your backers, this could be the way to bring your dreams to reality.  But there's a downside...and that's the whole "asking for money" part.  Many film budgets are in the $200K to $2M range, which is very difficult to raise using crowdfunding sources.  Even now, it appears that only production companies and studios have the capital to make a feature film worthy of your local multiplex.

Until now.  Enter JuntoBox Films, a Santa Monica based indie studio started by actor/director Forest Whitaker, with the goal of supporting independent film.  Their method is through their website, http://juntoboxfilms.com.  Here, users can register and post their film projects.  In order to be considered by the studio, they need to progress through 4 levels of social interaction and milestones to get to the coveted Level 5, where the JuntoBox chiefs review your project and decide whether or not to option it and try to have it become one of their greenlit films.

There's no asking folks for money.  Instead, you network with other filmmakers on the site, following and supporting each others' projects to rack up the required number of followers and star ratings that help you advance.  In addition, you need to provide the treatment, script, conceptual art, and pitch video to assist in drumming up your supporters.

To me, this is a win-win situation.  Of course, there might be sticking points in the option agreement, and even after reaching Level 5, there are still enough real obstacles that can still prevent your film from being greenlit, but I believe that the only way to really lose, is not to try.

So here's where I'm putting my "money" where my mouth is.  Check out our project "Cyber Fighter" here:  

 Our goal is to get 100 followers and 4-5 star ratings by August 1, 2013.  Unlike many of the other projects featured on JuntoBox Films, "Cyber Fighter" already has a complete script, treatment, and preliminary budget.  This film is further along than a lot of the other films featured on the site, so our goal is entirely realistic.

We've managed to get to Level 2 at the time of this posting, partially by following other projects and getting their creators' support.  But to reach the goal, we need to reach out to all our networks in order to attract followers.  100 followers and 4-5 star ratings will put us well over the minimum requirements set by the site designers and studio chiefs.  Here's where you can help.  We're asking you to do the following:

1. Click on the link above.

2. Register for free on JuntoBox Films.  For those of you in the entertainment industry, it's a great way for you to also network with other filmmakers.  Many projects are actively seeking casts and crew, and by completing your profile, you'll be able to also apply for various positions on other films.

3. Give us at least a 4 star rating.   One of the requirements for Level 4 is to have at least 80 4 star ratings.  I make it my policy to rate other projects I like with 4 stars, that way I'm also supporting my other fellow filmmakers.  I also reciprocate the support given to me by other members with projects.  We're not in competition against each other; ultimately it's JuntoBox that will decide what projects they want to option.  There's no race to the top--I believe that if you have a great concept, an awesome script, and a commercial project, they'll most likely want to option it.

4. Don't forget to also click on the "follow" button.   That way you will become a follower and will be able to track the progress.   We intend on opening up some cast and crew positions for you to be able to apply to in the near future as we refine the project on the site.  Stay tuned as we'll also be shooting a pitch video and perhaps a teaser trailer that will show proof of concept.

So that's it!  Our great JuntoBox Experiment.  Could this be the new paradigm for independent film?  I'm hoping so as it brings a kind of democratic process to the indie film industry.  Hope to see you there!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Keeping Motivated...

Ever run into a period where it's really hard to stay motivated?  We've all been there, and us creative folks have been there many times.   Sometimes it's difficult to keep our eyes on the prize.  The process of seeing a project from inception to release can be a very very long time.

While it's OK to slack off every once and a while, to prevent burnout, the danger is to let apathy put you into a never-ending holding pattern.  Eventually, you need to snap out of it, and remember why you're in this business in the first place.

Since filmmaking is an entrepreneurial endeavor, you're often your own studio head, boss, producer, etc.  As you're developing your project (on spec, of course), there's no one to hold you accountable for hitting your milestones, unlike a traditional corporate (or studio) structure.

Many years ago, I found myself at a creative crossroads.  I wasn't sure where I was going, and I had no idea how to get to the next level.  I realized that I could keep doing the same thing forever and nothing would ever change.  But I wanted to do so much more, and I didn't know how.

In situations like these, it's important to do something different.  If you're an athlete, you understand the concept of a training plateau.  In weight training, when you hit a plateau, then it's time to change up your workout routine to stimulate progress.  Your body gets used to doing things a certain way, and you won't progress unless you "shock" it into new growth.

The same goes with your mind.  Routine, while a comfort to many, is the enemy of creativity.  Once you find yourself "phoning it in", or working on autopilot, it's time to change things up.  Start a new routine.  For actors, this could be taking a brand new class, or even learning a new language or physical skill.  For writers & filmmakers, it could be introducing a new ritual into your script writing process.

I discovered this book The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron.  I had heard about it for many years; lots of my creative friends mentioned that they had done this course.  It's a book, but it's really a workbook that is designed to jump-start your creativity.  There are groups out there who go through the multi-week program together, but you can also do it alone.  Just make sure that you have the discipline to stick with it, because it's not easy.

 The Artist's Way Morning Pages (Google Affiliate Ad)          The Artist's Way at Work: Ridi (Google Affiliate Ad)

One of the activities that is part of the program is what's know as the Morning Pages.  You are required to write 3 full pages, single spaced, first thing each day.  There's no requirement for subject matter, only that you complete 3 pages...each day.  This is not easy.  Considering how many weeks are in the program, you will definitely have those moments where you don't know what you are going to write about.  But you have to do it!  In order to break through your own mental limitations, you need to push yourself, much like a personal trainer has you squeeze out a few extra reps, when you think you can't.

A funny thing happens when you break through your resistance.  Your mind begins to work on a different level.  You stop thinking and start being.  As an actor, this is best accomplished through Improv and other theater exercises, but for a writer, this is the next best substitute.  While the other activities in the program are very good for infusing your creativity, for me, it was the Morning Pages ritual that really clicked.

If you're so inclined, you might want to check the book out.  It's been around for many years, and they now have a new volume that's also geared towards your chosen career. They also now have a Morning Pages Journal that you can purchase as well.  But my main point is that whenever you hit a plateau, you need to shock yourself to a new level by doing something different.

It's been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly, expecting different results.  By changing, we grow.  Find your own new activity or ritual to move you out of your funk and into new levels of creativity!

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Long Road Of Development

A lot of you have probably heard the term "overnight success".  Many of us, early on in our own careers, will believe these tales of meteoric rise to the top and figure that if it doesn't happen fast enough, it wasn't meant to be.  After all, once a movie is greenlit, it should arrive in the theaters within 2 or three years tops, right?

Except that a lot of this PR "puffing" that we read in all the fanzines and consumer-grade trade publications tend to omit a lot of the "less sexy" stuff.  The years of toil and seemingly insurmountable odds it took for a film to finally reach your local multiplex.  Hollywood & the press like to focus on box office returns, not "development hell", or as I call it "development purgatory".

You see, hell is a final condemnation place where all hope is gone and where there is no escape. It's where your project goes to burn in eternal torment.  To me, "development hell" is the end of the road -- no return.  But to most creatives, the term relates to having a project in limbo, with no forward progress.  It might not be dead, but things aren't looking hopeful either.  That's why I prefer to call it purgatory.

For those who may not know, purgatory isn't the end -- rather it's a "holding place" for your soul (or your project).  In Catholic theology, prayers to the saints for the souls in purgatory can bring about intercession which could commute your sentence.  While prayer itself might not be enough to move your project to the greenlight,  it can definitely be helped by some intercession from "angels" or  new found champions on your team.

If you actually do the research, you'll find that every big movie had a long and bumpy road.  From George Lucas' first penciled draft of "The Star Wars" on a yellow legal pad to the May 1977 premiere of the original iconic movie that changed Hollywood forever, the years and years of struggle to write the script, find a studio to back it, get the budget it needed (and failing that, find a way to get Fox to fund the completion), etc, made the eventual blockbuster success that much sweeter.  The same goes for so many other movies.

As an indie producer/filmmaker, how do you get your film out of development purgatory?  Well, with the digital revolution in its second decade, the cost of shooting a feature film has dropped significantly.  There are many freelance DPs who own their own high-end camera package now, and securing their services will give you access to a professional camera like the Red Epic, or Alexa.  Plus, no longer do you need film stock -- today's camera "loader" spends their time changing the memory cards and battery packs, not loading film magazines.

Since the cost of making a film has dropped, the best solution is to shoot it already.  In Hollywood, there is an assumption that in order to shoot a feature film, there are certain parameters that you need to follow without question.  The problem with this is that it will block your progress.  It's been said that ignorance is bliss-- this can be very true when it comes to making a movie.  Sometimes the more you know, the more apt you are to "wait until you have everything in place" before you begin.

Instead, perhaps "learning on the job" will be the best way to get your filmmaker education, and complete your film.  Most of the advice I've heard from indie filmmaking panels and Q&A sessions after screenings is to "just do it".   So take that advice.  Don't let the naysayers give you any mental obstacles to stand in your path.  The cliche goes "where there's a will, there's a way".  But it's so true.  Figuring out how to make your dream a reality will probably be one of the most satisfying things that you'll ever do.  So do it!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Wonderful Nightmare of Tax Credits

Anyone who's involved in filmmaking has obviously heard of state tax credits.  Basically these are state government subsidies to film productions shooting in their locale.  On paper, these incentives look awesome as they provide cash back to a production, and can be used as a financing tool to secure financing for your film budget.

For example, New Mexico has a tax credit of up to 25% for qualified in-state spending for film productions.  So if you have a $1M budget, then that's $250K cash back from the state of NM...theoretically.  The catch is qualified expenses.  You need to make sure that you follow the guidelines and use proper accounting so that the state audit will accept all of the expenses and spending you've tagged as qualified.

This is where it's critical to have production accountants who understand these programs and how to tag your spending in the budget and cost report so that the expenses budgeted as being qualified will actually end up being qualified and not disallowed.   Many of the large studios fail to properly do this, and so a portion of the budgeted credit ends up being disallowed.

For a big studio, it's a headache, but not the end of the world since they already have millions of $$$ in their coffers, and these tax credits end up being icing on the cake and a way to recoup some of the budget.  But for an indie producer who is lured into this poppy field of "free government money", the results could be as disastrous as getting hooked on the opium that said poppies produce (ala that scene in Wizard of Oz -- you know the one!)

First off, most of the state tax incentives require you to use local hire crew and even for some of the cast.  Depending on where you shoot, star actors paid through a loanout may or may not qualify.  And since a name actor is going to be a huge chunk of an indie budget, that's a big portion that won't qualify.

Regarding crew, if you're shooting on HD, chances are your film crew will be a fraction of the number of crew on a big budget Hollywood production.  The DP you hire will often bring his own camera crew and sometimes hook you up with gaffers, grips etc. -- people they've worked with before.  There's a synergy with a crew that are veterans on many shoots. Having to rely on a local crew may or may not end up costing you more in the long run.

My recommendation is to not rush foolishly into this world of tax credits.  If you're shooting a feature film, consider the possibility that it actually might be cheaper to lay off the plane tickets and hotel rooms and shoot your movie in Los Angeles.  Unless of course you live in Santa Fe, obviously!

If you need to use tax credits to provide gap financing to cover funding that you're unable to raise, then you're going to want to engage a company that will float you the cash for the credit.  Again, you want to do your research.  Plus, in my opinion, tax credits only make sense if you have name attachments to your project that inflates the budget into the $3M + range.  If you're working on a shoestring budget, you're probably better off looking towards crowdfunding for your film.  And that's a totally different topic altogether.

Happy Filmmaking!

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Periodic Table of the "Elements"

No, this isn't a science related post -- unless you consider attaching elements to your screenplay a science.  In a way, that might be true, but for me, it's just a pun to introduce one of my favorite "new" resources.

If you've never heard of IMDBpro, then you're either not in show business, or if you are in show business, then you've time traveled from the 1990s, back in the days of black & white headshots, VHS demo reels, and messenger envelopes.

As a filmmaker, IMDBpro lets you have access to information about name actors, directors, producers, and who their agents and representatives are.  It lets you see what production companies and distributors are behind your favorite films.  When you're looking to raise money for your project, a lot of times a financing company wants to see the package -- who's starring and who's directing?

Casting Directors use this book called the UImer's Scale.  It's about $200, so it ain't cheap.   It's really only good for finding out which stars are "bankable".  And since it's a printed book, you have to wait for it to be updated, so your information might not be current.   It used to be very useful, but in this day and age of light speed changes in the industry, it's like relying on the yellow pages instead of Google.

With a little practice, you can get good at reading IMDBpro.  The important thing to remember is that nowadays, for you to achieve financing, you need to have actors and directors attached who have INTERNATIONAL appeal.  Most of the sources of independent film financing come from foreign sources.  So just because "so-and-so" is a big Hollywood star, that might not mean squat when it comes to foreign financing.   You'd be surprised how many A-listers can't secure financing.  As a producer, if you're going to spend big money to have a name actor attached to your film, if their name can't secure the funds for the budget, you're just throwing it all away.

The trick is finding the real bankable actors/directors/etc. who will give your project the funding so that you can shoot it.  Actors are looking for great material, and they're willing to work for less salary if the role is kick-ass (especially if it could be award-worthy).  The old studio paradigm of the 1980s best reflected in the movie "The Player" is quickly becoming extinct.

It's an exciting time -- the Internet has not only turned our world into a global social network, but the economy is truly experiencing globalization beyond what my old Economics college professors predicted.  Yes, things are slow and the economy is stagnant.  But politically speaking, we need to start thinking in terms of a global market.   Isolationism and xenophobia will kill the emerging opportunities.  By embracing the changes and opportunities in this industry, we will be able to come out ahead in the long run and still retain America's lead in the entertainment business.