Quick Catch Up

Learning is something that goes on throughout one’s life. For me, one thing I’ve learned about this space is how difficult it is to maintain any type of blog and to get a site like this going. Nonetheless, after two years of being up and running but also being less than “current” I am going to re-dedicate myself to bringing the entire site up to date. That means more posts and it means a further expansion of course materials.

So far, the site has served as a compliment to my live course work. I use many of the short video lessons with classes that I have taught at Columbia University, City College of New York and even for a guest appearance at Brooklyn College last week.

The new year will bring new teaching challenges and I will be expanding on a lot of the curriculum I have created. This site will be the partial beneficiary of that expansion. So look for more “stuff”.

Included in the “stuff” category will be an e-book I hope to complete called Money4Movies that outlines the basics of all of the various ways money is raised to make films, television shows and really any form of audio visual work. (Note the avoidance of the word “content” – which I find objectionable and will write about in a separate post.)

I also have the great fortune to have raised a bit of money for a documentary on jazz tenor sax legend Gato Barbieri. The working title is “El Gato”. I will, from time to time, write about what I am learning in the doc world as I learn it. That’s one area that has been lacking both on the site and in my own career. It’s very exciting to be taking on a whole new type of project after 36 years in the business and I am taking careful notes.

More to come…

 

 

 

Having a Business Plan

Is it necessary or even a good idea to create a Business Plan for your independent feature film?

The short answer is no, it isn’t necessary and yes, it is a good idea.

It isn’t a necessity because I have very rarely in my 35 year career had to deliver a full-fledged Business Plan to an investor in order to get a deal done. I’ve sent different parts of such a plan to various parties – the financial projections for example being requested by an investor’s accountant or the budget sent to a Completion Bond company where a bond is an investor requirement– but never the entire B-plan.

Getting an investor in the gate has to do more with the level of trust they have for you individually and with the personnel involved in the project. You’ll need a team to get a film made, whether that team is a dozen people or 10 dozen people depending on the size and scope of your production. Filmmaking is not really a “go it alone” kind of deal.

So if no one will ever ask for it, why should you do it?

For me, the main reason is how the process of putting together this document will make you a better fund raiser.

You need to fully think through all of the steps in your production from determining the right amount of money, getting that money, spending that money most effectively and getting that money back to your investors.

Filmmaking is a process, often a long and complicated process, and those of you who embrace that and take all of the right steps are better positioned to succeed. You need a roadmap to get through, to anchor you, and the Business Plan along with its offshoots- Look Books, Schedules, Budgets, etc. – will set the guideposts you will follow on your journey. You may, from time to time, need to update things as new information comes in or as circumstances change but revising an existing plan is much easier than creating one from scratch.

The critical component in creating a Business Plan is in fact, the act of creating it. Going through that process will force you to clearly articulate what your project is about, substantiate the value of your project and create a detailed plan for completion and exploitation of your project. You will become more knowledgeable about your project anyhow it is positioned in the marketplace. Just as important, you will have the confidence that comes from being on solid ground when discussing it.

Should I buy an off-the-shelf business plan? We’ll take a look at that question next time.

Diversity

I’ve been thinking about this issue for literally decades. I’ve often been in situations where there was a mandate from the top to put together a diverse crew. The challenge has always been finding the people – not the cast, but the Below-the-Line personnel. That’s when I concluded that the best way to find that crew was to start at the top – the Key Creative positions and the Department Heads. The selections are driven from the top down.

That’s why I’ve written this piece http://www.indiewire.com/article/why-we-need-diversity-incentives-for-film-and-television-20150207 about the need for Diversity Incentives at the top levels of the industry. The corporate decision makers have no reason to ask the question, “Could a woman direct this? Or perhaps an African-American? Or do the lead actors have to all be white?” The idea of a Diversity Incentive is just that – a reason for the decision makers to ask the question. In much the same way, they ask, “Could we shoot this in Louisiana? Or Georgia?” Those questions are asked every single day because of the financial incentives for shooting in those states.

Why not add that discussion to the make-up of the cast and crew?

Holiday Greetings

It’s been a hectic 2014 during which I’ve been out of the country for the better part of the past six months. The new year will be bring me back to the site and to the ProuducingforFilm Meetup Group that was started last Spring. Keep a watch for new courses and up to date posts. Several new projects coming in 2015 including an adaptation of a noir thriller and a new original script. And as always, a dedication to getting The Secret Magdalene made!

Here’s wishing everyone a happy and healthy holiday season and a prosperous new year!

 

Shooting at Home

Location shooting is always, by definition, shooting at home – someone’s home.

A friend recently called to say a film location scout had been in contact with her about using her house for a shoot. She was told that they “just wanted to use the exterior” and offered a nominal fee. She thought it might be fun but asked me to tell her what might be involved. I sat down and wrote a short list of things that she needed to keep in mind and that she needed ask from the production company. It was interesting to think from the point of view of a property owner in this situation as opposed to the company trying to secure a location. There’s always value in looking at things from the “other side” so here’s my list with some commentary for the production alongside it.

A short list of “things to know about productions shooting in your house”…

1. Access for pre-production, shooting and wrapping up (clean up) – these are really the really important issues – where do they need to go, for how long and when. Some questions to ask:

o   How many days and how many hours each day? It’s important to get down to the actual times of day here or you may find yourself with a crew in your living room at 3am!

o   What changes do they need to make to your property?

o   What parts of your property, specifically, do they need access to? (If there’s an actor opening your front door then they will need access to the interior of the house even if the camera is outside.)

o   Do they need to use your bathroom for cast or crew?

o   Do they need to use any space for make-up/ hair/ wardrobe?

o   Are they using your power or do they have their own generator for lights?

o   What about any re-shoots or other work beyond the original production period?

o   Access needs to be very specific and fees for additional access need to be stated in the agreement.

2. Insurance – the company must have General Liability and Third Party Property Damage and you must be named as “Additional Insured” on their policy. They need to provide a Certificate of Insurance that shows this coverage and indicates that you are named as “Additional Insured”. The significance of this is that if you are an Additional Insured the production insurance will fully protect you. Otherwise, your insurance company will be brought into any potential claim and your insurance rates may go up.

3. From a personal point of view- you need to have someone there, on premises, at all times that the company is present. Who is that person and are they prepared for the time commitment as laid out in Item #1 above?

4. You need to make sure the agreement states the following:

o   You, as property owner, should be “held harmless” from any claims arising out of their work. (You are not responsible, for example, if their truck knocks over your neighbor’s fence or if using your location leads to any other type of claim. )

o   That the property will be restored to the same condition or better that it is now. (For example, what happens if they screw up your lawn? Also, if they are coming inside they should pay for cleaning of the interior because it will get messy.)

o   It is the production’s responsibility to get all necessary permits from the Village or Town to allow for parking and traffic issues. Also, the production needs to obtain any required permissions from you neighbors in addition to notifying them about their presence on the block. No one likes to come home from a long day of work to find trucks and people blocking their driveway or street.

Once you’ve considered all of the above you should decide whether the fee offered is adequate compensation, keeping in mind that it is taxable income (Yes, the production will be asking for your social security number, by having you fill out an IRS Form W-9 and you will receive a Form 1099 at the end of the year that will show the amount of additional income you must report.)

The above is all standard procedure and normal business practice. If any part of this freaks out the production company, then you know they are not the types you would want to allow access to your home!

As a postscript I should say that writing all of this makes me quite wary of having a film crew in my house or apartment. It’s important from the production side that all of these points are thought through before getting caught up in the “wouldn’t it be exciting to have a film shot in your house!” feeling.

As a producer, you should want to be sure all of these things are handled correctly and discussed openly. If they aren’t handled in advance and covered in your location agreement they could arise while you’re shooting and be very costly. Doing things correctly will also help to avoid bad feelings from your location owner which helps to spread positive “word-of-mouth” about you and future productions.

Tell us your worst location nightmare… and how could it have been prevented.

 

Excellent Crowd Funding Advice

The ProducingforFilm Meet Up Group had a special guest last night – Erica Anderson from SeedandSpark.com – who gave us a really good workshop on how to approach crowd funding. I’ve been reluctant to get into the current model and have been researching the new equity-based or “regulation crowd funding” that is coming down the road. While that is still something I will pursue via Passion First, I have been won over to the approach that SeedandSpark is taking. In no particular order here are five bullet points that make me appreciate their approach.

1. The idea that there is more to the goal of raising small sums of money to make movies than just those small sums. Movies cost a lot and the idea of working very hard to raise $17,000 (the average amount raised on Kickstarter) seems quite inefficient based on the amount of work involved. So there has to be some other reason to do this.

2. The truth that preparing for and executing a crowd funding campaign is hard work and requires ingenuity and creativity. In that regard, crowd funding is no different from traditional methods of funding. In fact, the hard work aspect makes it fit right in to overall process of filmmaking. It all looks easy and often glamorous but making films or videos at any budget level and is challenging and requires long hours.

3. The practical tips on knowing your audience and understanding them is very important, especially the revolutionary idea that your audience is NOT a demographic. I love the suggestions for approaching this very thorny issue.

4. The strategy presented for the weeks of work required BEFORE you launch your campaign. To me, this is akin to the Pre-production period on a movie. If the prep is done correctly, the shoot will suffer – sometimes fatally.

5. Overall, the understanding that crowd funding is just one other tool in getting your movie made and that it shouldn’t end with the completion of your project. That there is a continuation and a career to be started, or to be grown if you already have one going.

Check out all of the information at SeedandSpark.com and watch for more on this topic in this space. Let me know how your crowd funding efforts have gone!

When Not to D-I-Y…

I love the Do-It-Yourself world and do, indeed, do many more things than I ever imagined possible. Being able to do some rudimentary things like download and organize footage that’s been shot allows me to get things done cheaper and on my own timetable. Being able to create basic websites and instructional videos and webinars has allowed me to reach a lot of people with really good information. On my last film, I did all of the accounting including payroll and handled most of the legal work. Having technology help me get routine tasks done myself saved money and helped make the movie a reality. When I think back on it, I even became a screenwriter many years ago just so that I would have something to produce!

But there are situations when D-I-Y should be handled with caution.

I met recently with a young person who had worked in the film industry for a number of years and was quite successful in her niche but, like many of us, had grown restless. She initiated the meeting because she wanted to talk about “moving into producing.” Her reputation and her skill set seemed to lend itself to that goal. But as we talked she expressed the desire to tell stories and to control those stories as much as possible; in essence to be a writer-director-producer.

I met another young man who was about to direct his first feature. He was also producing it   alone, by necessity, and was planning on shooting and editing it as well. His script was quite good and he had some resources but was making the decision up front to “save money” by being a multi-hyphenate; doing the work of four people to conserve his cash.

My advice to both of these people was essentially the same: try to keep the number of hyphens in your title down to ONE as you start out.  Some jobs naturally lend themselves to working together like Writer-Director. There are certainly a few successful filmmakers who have other hyphenates like Director-Cinematographer. There are even some exceptional people with two hyphenates. But I think there is something very important about collaboration and about doing what one does best. Consider what you really, really want to be and what you excel at, then find good people to handle the other jobs.

My theory here is that even exceptional people are probably exceptional in only one area. Let’s say, as in the case above that you plan on being a Director-Producer-Cinematographer-Editor. Let’s say you are an exceptional Director (if you’re going to excel, I’d say THAT would be the area that will get your career the farthest!). So you are a great Director that is now working with an average Cinematographer and Editor and, possibly a not very good Producer. The question is, would the movie be better served with a great Cinematographer, a really talented Editor and a better Producer? I’d say yes to all three. Having skilled people in all of those areas will easily make up for the sacrifices you’ll make to have the money to hire them.

One word about the Producing credit – this is one where there are so many kinds of producers and contributions that can come from them that a lot of Directors do indeed function as producers in the early stages of getting their projects off the ground. Having a credit that acknowledges that is okay with me but I think it’s important to hand the actual job of producing off to someone who is capable as the production becomes real. I have had the Producer-Writer credit on several occasions and I have to literally take the Writer Hat off and put the Producer Hat on at a certain point if I am to be most effective.

The Editor hyphenate is especially tricky but is also more open than the others. It is possible to assemble a cut of your film yourself and then bring in an Editor or even a consulting editor down the road. It’s not my favorite scenario because the function of the editor is to be as objective as possible about the footage that was shot and it’s tough to be objective when you planned every setup and lived through the 18 hour day that it took to shoot. At the very least, if you’re going down this road you need to screen the film extensively and take careful notes of audience reactions. Try to take off the Director or Producer or Cinematographer hat when you are in the editing room and focus on making the best film possible from the available footage.

Generally, filmmaking is and should be collaborative. That can be scary and result in a feeling of “losing control” for filmmakers. But listening to other people’s ideas doesn’t mean you’ve lost control. Find people who share your vision and who can add to it, then hear their ideas and accept the ones that make sense for your movie. Don’t cut this process short by deciding to Do-It-All-Yourself!

What’s your personal experience with “doing everything” or “doing too much”? And how has it impacted the end result?

Introducing the Interview Page

I’m exciting to announce that I’ve finally gotten it together to begin a new feature – interviews about producing. I will be sitting down for conversations with producers and with the people they interact with on a daily basis – cast and crew members – to bring what I hope will be some insights into this under appreciated skill. Along the way, I hope to provide some role models for those of you out there just getting started. In each interview we’ll talk about how the subject got started and then go into detail about a specific aspect of producing.

I’ve chosen to do these as audio interviews largely because, as a producer, I’m not a big fan of being in front of the camera and worrying about how I look. From a production standpoint I am also not a big fan of having to lug around a lot of equipment and people to get things done. So give a listen. I promise it will be worthwhile.

The first one out of the gate is with my dear friend, mentor and outstanding producer, Maggie Renzi. Maggie has produced iconic independent American films like LONESTAR, MATEWAN, THE SECRET OF ROAN IINISH and, a personal favorite, BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET. In the interview Maggie tells us how she got started and then talks about her approach to producing movies in different cultures – everywhere from The Philippines to Ireland to Alaska and America’s Deep South.

Let me know what you think and let me know if you have any suggestions for future interview topics.

Check out the interview here.

Notes for Next Time

Over the years I’ve kept a document on my computer that I would update now and again whenever a good idea struck me while I was in some phase of production – or post-production, pre-production or even development. Keep in mind that I have always been in some phase of production for the past 34 years, so the document has become like an old friend to me. I call that document “Notes for Next Time.” Sadly, through a couple dozen computer crashes and the inexpert use of backup devices, I don’t have the original document that goes all the way back to the beginning so I can’t find every one of my notes, but it’s still fun to read back even 10 years ago.

Quaint notes like, “Be sure to obtain an archive of all documents on diskette” put a smile on my face. The truth is that many of my notes – along with tips and tricks – have become obsolete due to technology. Some of the things I wanted budgeting and scheduling software to do back in the 90s have actually come to pass and more improvements were made to software than I could have imagined. Then there’s a whole category of notes that involve “good ideas” that still haven’t been implemented or are just on the cusp of coming to fruition. Among those are the ability to drill into a an actual Budge from the Estimate to Complete in a Cost Report, as well as Electronic time cards, start forms and purchase orders. I’ve looked for these for well over a decade and some are just now starting to be introduced.

There are also cautionary notes and comments that could be easily incorporated into posts for this blog and into specific classes on this site. Things like, “Provide an excel spreadsheet to department heads for budgeting to ensure they include proper fringes in labor calculations.” Or, “Talk to the Director about what kind of rehearsals they want to have to be sure they’re covered in the prep schedule and budget.” The overall concept is to track those “genius” and “not-so-genius” ideas you have while standing on a freezing street corner at 3am doing take 18 of what looked like a simple “walk and talk” on paper. I highly recommend the Voice Notes feature on your phone when brilliance strikes in this type of situation! (Just be sure to set a phone reminder that says, “Listen to Voice Notes!”)

Sometimes great ideas are borne out of the horrible moments and often they aren’t recorded for posterity. And trust me, young guns out there, it’s pretty easy to remember the great idea when you had it last week but decades of wear and tear often erase it. Part of the challenge of remembering is that the “genius” idea may relate to a situation that you won’t face again for years. I can testify to the fact that whenever I go back to my little document, I always read through the ideas and find at least one that makes me nod and say, “Yes, gotta remember that one,” whether or not I’ve ever again encountered the problem that caused it. So I highly advise some kind of device like “Notes for Next Time.” No I still haven’t put together that “Ideal Producer’s Location Kit” (that idea from 2003) but you may be reading about it down the road in this blog!

What this is really about is that every single time you go out to shoot – and I mean whether it’s a feature film or a simple sit down interview for a documentary – you will learn something. It may not be earth shattering and it may not change the way you do your job, but you will learn something. Most of the time, unless it’s a huge lesson we won’t remember it. But, you should always be aware of how you are doing your job and look for ways to improve your skills – technical and personal. I look back and nod when I read notes like, “Don’t wear a watch,” and the sound advice, “If you need to give someone a taking to, take them aside and do it quietly.” Those are the kind of notes I value the most – the ones that will make me just a little bit better next time.

Webinars!

I’m very excited to be launching a series of webinar events tonight with a FREE session called “Protecting Your Material”. We will discuss issues of copyright and the protection of intellectual property with attorney and filmmaker Marc Simon. The webinar is full but for anyone not attending I will make a recording available for free on this site shortly.

This experience has required me to learn a lot and I can only hope all of the bases are covered. It’s a lot like production!

Check out the list of Webinars planned. Hope you’ll join us for some!