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how to turn a script into a product

25 May

during the early stages of script development, I started to realise we weren’t going to be able to shoot this film on the kind of budget myself and the director could raise ourselves (eg, under the £30,000 mark). the original script was the director’s baby: he’d first written it when he was 15, and didn’t want to compromise it any way.

so we decided to set out to film it for around the £600,000 mark.  this meant we would have to have experienced crew and investors on board, and therefore that we had to create a product around the script which they would want to back.

we pooled all the money we could get our hands on, and created:

1.  a very funky website, which was designed in a way that made it double up as concept art too.  people could visit the site and understand what the tone of the film would be.  we went to great lengths to ensure it looked as good as, if not better than, major budget film websites.  every potential crew member, every investor, every sales agent has been sent to the website as a way of being introduced to the film, so it was worth the money and the effort in having it look bang-on.

we were fortunate that one of our close friends from uni is a graphic designer…the site would have cost upwards from £5,000 to make had we gone to a web design agency.  as it was, it cost us £800 up front, and £2,000 in deferred pay providing we sell the film.  if you don’t have a friend who you believe is up to the job, then go to exhibitions held by third year graphics students at a uni near you, find a student whose work you like, and offer them a similar deal.  they might even do it for free, as portfolio work, and you’ll know that their ideas and style are fresh and innovative.

2. next, we filmed a concept art teaser trailer.  60-seconds long, it encapsulated the tone of the film (gory, with tongue-in-cheek humour) and the visual style we wanted to achieve (browns and greens, dark bloods, dirty).  it proved to potential crew and investors that myself and the director could film something that looked completely professional, and that had heart.  in a way, it also showed that I would be able to bring the feature film itself in on a tiny budget (given the nature of some of the scenes in the script): the trailer cost just £1,200, despite having a 15 second CGI sequence, 30 cast members, and 6 prosthetic “set pieces”.

the trailer has been used as a marketing tool, to drum up interest and exposure on youtube, facebook, film forums, and other internet sites.  sales agents have been excited at how we have started this online marketing from the very beginning of script development, as it gives them a levering tool to persuade distributors that the premise of the film is already going down well with audiences.

3.  next, we organised some photography shoots, again as concept art.  our film is being made for the 16 – 30 year old market, and so some of the character types and language was a little alien for older investors.  the concept art featured the main characters in the script, how we envisaged them looking, and illustrated the differences between the two gangs of youths.

this concept art has been great as content for the website, and for production packs.

4.  we wanted our production packs to stand out from the many others that actors, investors, sales agents, etc receive on a day-to-day basis…so, we designed and had printed full-colour, glossy folders to put everything in.  this gave our packs colour and design which could be used no matter if the treatment, script, budget etc changed.  the folder was printed out in landscape, widescreen, partly to make it stand out from the standard portrait packs, and partly because we liked how it looked. all the content to go inside the folder was designed so it would look good printed out on our printers (in black and white) and formatted in landscape to match the folders.

5.  the last major step we took was to attach an established executive producer, in a mentor role.  this was undoubtably the best decision we made, and also the cheapest: they agreed to mentor us for no upfront fee.  it meant we could include their name in information about the production, so adding weight and security to it, and also that we could run ideas or questions by them.  we have also been introduced to many hugely talented and well known crew members through our exec producer, and have been able to attach a few of them as our heads of department – something very important in sales agents and investors eyes, as they increase the likelihood of the production being completed to a high standard.

of course, the main selling point about our production is the script.  but the above five points help it to get noticed amongst all the other brilliant scripts out there.  hope this helps someone – does anyone have any other suggestions to add?

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writer, exec producer & casting dir. agreements

12 May

yesterday I added some paperwork templates to my Box in the right hand side toolbar.  they’re agreements for attaching a writer, executive producer and casting director to a production.  also, a generalized copyright clearance form for when you’re perhaps doing a small, non-paid shoot.

so, feel free to download and use ’em.

I have to point out that it’s always better to get a lawyer on board if you’re starting a largeish production, because if your paperwork isn’t solid, there could be huge issues when you get to selling.  however, it’s not always possible on low budget productions, especially in development when you may not have secured finance yet.

before you completely give up hope, email round some law firms explaining your situation, and attaching some information about your company / company directors / production.  some law firms will represent newly formed companies who they feel are up and coming, for a deferred fee (meaning, you’ll need to write their costs into your budget, but they won’t need to be paid them right away).  that’s how I got these agreements written, and why I’d recommend you using them rather than trying to write your own if you can’t find a lawyer you can afford.

enjoy!

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how to be cheap: the script

9 May

most of the time, being tight is viewed as a bad thing.  no-one will want to go down the pub with you.  it will lose you friends.  it might even alienate people.

not so in the world of the producer. a first time director’s selling point is the fact they are raw talent with a fresh voice.  a first time producer’s selling point is that they have a commercial script which can be shot for next to nothing (in film terms).

you’re probably thinking, yeah, first time films have to be low budget, everyone knows that.  tell us something new. everyone might know that, but not many first time producers will go through a script solely with the intent of significantly reducing the budget.  I don’t just mean cutting out a couple of unnecessary scenes.  I mean thinking outside of the box and completely reworking it.  you want to make a film set in communist Germany? contain it to just a couple of rooms, like they did in Goodbye Lenin!.  you want to make a film about a bank heist?  Tarantino limited the majority of Reservoir Dogs to one warehouse location in order to film it on just $1.2 million.

of course, every film is different and only you can look at a script you want to make and rework it to save money.  but below are some generalised pointers:

1.  review all the locations in your script carefully.  there are too many variables to list here, so read this location lowdown post.

2.  ask yourself, can you get across your story using no more than five cast members?  can you do away with scenes involving lots of extras?  every cast member you have will cost you upwards of £70 a day in expenses (food, travel, accommodation).  over a whole shoot, and added to their pay, this will make you weep.

3.  think carefully before using animals and children.  these little buggers need extra crew to look after them, and to train them, you’ll generally have to do more retakes, wasting more time (and stock, if you’re planning to shoot on film). they won’t be able to work long days, no matter how many Kinder Surprises you bribe them with. or how hard you whip them.

4.  avoid car chases.  unless you spend a lot on them, they’re going to look BBC.

5.  if you’ve got characters watching a film, or listening to a music track, it’s going to cost you a lot of money in copyright clearances.  pay homage to other filmmakers or musicians in cheaper ways.

6.  although horror films are a popular starting point for filmmakers, their art department costs can be huge.  every time you write “Linda runs terrified though a dark wood – suddenly, a zombie hoarde appears round the corner, ripping her apart limb from limb”, you have to then budget lighting a wood at night, hiring a track or steadicam, making up 6+ zombie prosthetic masks, making a Linda dummy that can be pulled apart, etc etc.

remember, in horror films it is often what you don’t see that is most frightening (think the shower scene in Psycho: basically some dude with a knife behind a shower curtain, and a bang-on score).  try to scare the audience using a build up of tension rather than gore.  set it at night, so you only get the hint of that cheap prosthetic.

one pitfall that low-budget horrors often fall into is trying to make every scene a gorefest (Shrooms is a perfect example of what can happen if you do this with an inexperienced director on board).  not only is it hard to keep the horror momentum going without the audience becoming desensitised to it, it also costs a fortune, and probably means your characters end up underdeveloped.

instead, take a leaf out of Eli Roth’s book – Hostel 1 and 2 are two of the most extreme horrors of all time.  yet the gore is really only focused on the last half hour of each film.  until then, Roth uses the screentime to build an uneasy tension, and a relationship between the audience and characters.  this means when their lives are in danger we genuinely care about them, and also that his budget is kept under control.

7.  alternatively, use a comedy or dromedy (drama comedy) as your first script.  very little art department costs.  done.

8.  focus your scripts on the characters, and get some great dialogue going on.  issues that you want to get across to your viewers can come through the characters, rather than the visuals, so you don’t have to recreate huge scenes.

if you can get your script to adhere to each of the above points, then fair play, I take my hat off to you. but as long as you tick off 4 or so, you’ll be fine.

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location, location, location

9 May

no, this post isn’t about Phil and Kirsty, although I do love those two…they should totally get together, escape to the country, and spawn a hoarde of kids named Oscar, Isabella, and similar.

but anyway…I’ve been budgeting recently, and my locations line keeps screaming out at me, why did you not think about me while you were scripting? why do you curse at me so?  it’s not my fault I’m so large, you terrible producer, you.

it’s true, I did a couple of cursory glances through the script while we were writing, but I never challenged the locations side of it properly.  yeah, I cut out a couple…but I should have done more.  I have about 15 locations, I should have got it down to about 7.  one of them is a dry docked boat.  one of them is in Antigua, for christssake.  do a better job than me.  keep reading.

the fewer locations, the better.  when your crew is setting up, moving, and then packing away again, they’re obviously not getting scenes in the can, although you’re still footing the production bill.

be careful about interior locations in your script.  a cheap interior set (ie, one that belongs to you, or a friend, or that can be hired for free, or that doesn’t need any set construction) can be the greatest way to save money.  you’ll be able to leave equipment set up, can film for long hours, and you won’t be at the mercy of the sun.  however, interiors can also add up to a lot of money if they are not perfect and so have to be decorated, or if they don’t belong to you and have to be hired.  the base price for interior location hire is around £400 a day upwards – grand or unusual interior locations will cost from £1500 a day.

daytime exterior locations are *generally* cheaper to hire than interior locations, or completely free if they’re council owned.  lighting costs will be minimal.  if you are filming during the winter, however, you won’t get long shooting days.  lighting continuity can also be tricky.

nightime exterior locations can be a nightmare unless they are a) close to an electricity source and b) have vehicle access.  lighting wide shots will cost a lot of money.

locations can be a key source of funding.  by filming somewhere that is a bit out of the way (ie. not in London or the home counties) you will have less competition to the regional film funds there.  areas that are a bit unpopular will be more desperate to generate money, which your film could do.

if you’re on a micro micro budget, chances are you won’t be able to stand accommodation or large travel costs.  choose locations which are close to where your cast and crew live.

it’s worth getting a location manager on board from pre-production through filming, but to be honest you as a producer should do your own location scouting throughout development.  you’ll save money, and it will make you think about the filming logistics.

contact councils if you find / have in mind locations that are exterior and not on private land.  you should be able to film on them for free, but might need a permit or to notify the police.  councils also own buildings, so they might be able to help you out with free interior locations, too.  if you know of a location which is on private land, have the confidence to contact the land owner directly rather than dismissing the location and going with a similar one on a locations directory.  you’ll be able to negotiate a much cheaper price than through an agency.

use google maps to location scout from your office before checking them out in person.  it’s an amazing tool, especially now you can drag and drop that little yellow guy under the compass to use 360 degree Streetview.

if you find you have locations written into your script which you can’t find yourself, then approach your regional film agency.  but bear in mind that doing as much as you can yourself, privately, will keep costs in check.  it’s the standard middle man rule.

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commercial doesn’t have to mean cr*p

8 May

ok, so you have all these incredible ideas: you want to make, like, “Lost”, but set in space; you have the most perfect script ever for Jack Nicholson / Brad Pitt / that pouty dude out of “Twilight” in a drawer under your bed; you once had this amazing hour just sitting watching your cat slowly kill a spider and it was the most horrifically profound thing you ever saw, you feel you need to make a film about it right here, right now, and it’s going to blow people’s minds…

stop.  this is your first film.  once you’ve proved you can out-direct Tarantino, then you can do whatever the hell you like.  but for now, you have to make compromises, and that means choosing a script that is both:

1.  cheap, and

2.  commercial

so why can’t you just do what you want, like any other artist would?  after all, filmmaking is an art, right?

well, yes, or course it is.  it’s highly creative – from the scripting, to the set design, to the lighting, to the actor’s performances.  however, it differs in one way: unlike creating a sculpture or composing a symphony, making a film with any kind of artistic value costs a lot of money.  99% of the time you can’t just go out and fund it yourself, you have to raise money, and be organised enough to coordinate financiers, a cast, and a crew.  let’s say you do make your own film: now what do you do with it?  it’s not like a painting, you can’t just sell it and make your money back straight away.  you need distribution…it’s not enough for filmmakers to simply be artists, they have to be business people too.

what I’m getting at here is that a filmmaker has to have a track record in order to persuade other people to come on board with them and create a film.  therefore, a first time filmmaker has such a major setback simply by being a first time filmmaker, that everything they do needs to counter balance this in some way.  in the first instance this is through choosing the right film project to be your first film.

so, back to the two criteria.

by cheap, I mean ideally under the £850,000 mark.  absolutely no more than £1.5 million.  with a first time director, producer and writer team, it is unheard of for sales agents, distributors or film bodies to take a project with a budget bigger than this seriously.  no matter how much raw talent is bleeding out of you onto exec’s floors, no matter how many times you refer to yourselves as “fresh” and “the voice of the youth” (feel free to use those.  they’ll open doors).

now, because your budget will only just cover putting crew up in hostels and feeding them on food from Lidl’s discount aisles, how are you going to make it commerical?  you’re probably not going to be able to afford the £million salaries commanded by household name stars, or huge CGI battle sequences.  don’t panic.  all this means is that you’d be ill-advised to make a romcom, or a straight drama film, or a science fiction film.  romcoms and straight dramas traditionally pull in audiences using their celebrity leads, therefore an investor / sales agent / distributor will probably not touch them with a barge pole if the cast list isn’t up to scratch. with a science fiction film, the CGI is the a-list celeb, and people aren’t going to be impressed if it mostly consists of empty cereal boxes covered in tin foil.  unfortunately, kids have evolved since the 60’s Doctor Who audience.

so, you’re left with horror, thriller, comedy, or dromedy films, as the people going to watch them want to be scared, laugh, or geek out, no matter if Keira Knightly or Leo DiCaprio is or isn’t in them.  for example, the film I’m making at the moment is a horror comedy.  not only this, but it also has “hooks” – by this, I mean it has themes and elements that grab people’s attention and can be used as selling points.  in our case, these are that the story centers around stoners and zombies, and is aimed at a youth market.  all this relaxes everyone slightly: yes, we are first-timers.  but the film is as commercial as possible on a low budget.

the problem about some filmmakers is that they turn a blind eye to this.  if you seriously want to be a successful producer, and you don’t have a track record, you’ll be making it extremely hard for yourself by starting out with a niche arthouse film.  raising finance will be a nightmare, because they just don’t pull in the general public, and this isn’t because the general public have poor taste, it’s because art installation videos and arthouse films are generally dull and pretentious.  feel free to slander me for saying that, it’s true.

however, there is absolutely no reason why a commercial film with the potential to secure theatrical release should be artistically inferior to a niche, arthouse film.  of course, Hollywood studios churn out a lot of crap because they can afford to hide mediocre scripts behind an expensive director and cast.  but low budget films that obtain cinema release almost always balance subtext with engaging plotline, empathic characters, and visually arresting cinematography.  if you want to comment on high-culture issues, do it through a commercial film – at least your voice will be heard by someone.  and if you can’t handle difficult subjects in a way that engages the general public, then chances are it’s because you’re not a good enough writer.  look at This Is England, which brought issues of racism and the BNP party to a huge audience, or Juno, which dealt with teen pregnancy vs abortion in a way that wasn’t completely depressing.  if you can commercialise the BNP and abortion, you can commercialise anything.  anything.

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