100 thousand U.S. dollars is, objectively speaking, a lot of money. Its enough money for a single person to live, comfortably, albeit modestly, in a major US urban center for half a decade without having to work. And every year, untold hundreds of people will blow that amount of money making a low budget feature film that never gets past a bunch of festival rejection emails. Here’s what I think you should do instead.
100 thousand US dollars is, objectively speaking, a lot of money. Its enough money for a single person to live, comfortably, albeit modestly, in a major US urban center for half a decade without having to work. 100K is also an amount of money that is way beyond the reach of nearly every worker in the US. How long would it take for the average American to save this much money?
In 2005, for the first time since the Great Depression, American’s spent more than they earned, meaning a savings rate of less than zero. Since the economic crash of 2008 things have only gotten worse. And still, every year, thousands of my fellow Americans embark on the project of scraping together this amount of money (or debt), and much, much more and sink it into independently financed feature films. And nearly everyone of them believes there will be some sort of financial return on this investment. And, for nearly everyone of them, there won’t be. This money is borrowed from family and friends, inherited, extracted from home equity, or happened upon from even more wildly foolish investors. And, despite popular misconception, making a low-budget genre horror flick isn’t a guaranteed money-maker. Does this limit the pool of people who get to make profit generating feature films?
Does it mean you shouldn’t spend your family’s generosity on making movies?
Here is my advice to my friends with 100 Grand that want to have a long careers and enjoyable lives as filmmakers:
1) Be Patient, Be Ready
Just because you read about some first-time director hitting it big with a low-budget feature, doesn’t mean you’re going to. Those director’s are the exception, not the rule, odds are it won’t be you. And also, if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that those directors, with the amazing first feature, have been making short films for the last decade, or actually directed a feature film that no one’s ever heard of. For some odd reason, American popular culture, and the indie film PR machines, loves to perpetuate the myth of the authentic genius who pops out a masterpiece, fully formed, on his or her first try. Its a weird and unreasonable standard to hold ourselves to. The great thing about being a filmmaker is that you get to do it forever. What’s so tragic about not getting a first feature done until you’re 45 or 55 or 65? What’s the rush? You’ll do you yourself, and your audience, a favor if you wait until you’re ready.
2) Don’t Buy the latest and great Digital Cinema Camera Package
Unless you’re starting up a business as a for-hire cinematographer, it’d be a huge mistake to blow a third of your wad on any piece of gear, especially a camera. I know you want one, and everyone told you the Alexa, or the RED EPIC, is basically magic and will cure the blind and heal the sick. And it is amazing, and Soderbergh’s got two and Jackson’s got twenty I know, I know…
But these cameras are still very expensive (for you, not for Soderbergh or Jackson). In addition the financial cost, they are also incredibly technical pieces of equipment which will require a crew and a bunch of specialized gear to use. Not to mention all the special things you’ll have to learn about post to make it all work just right. If you absolutely must own some gear (rather than rent) to feel like a real filmmaker, then I’d spend no more than 12K of your 100K on the following:
No more than 4-5K on a Camera with memory cards and some accessories
a tripod (no more than 800)
a microphone (no more than 300)
a boom pole (about 100)
a nice set of headphones (about 100)
a bounce card (a dollar)
a MacBook Pro (2500)
Final Cut Studio (1300)
Adobe Creative Suite (1700)
“Directing Actors” by Judith Weston’s (18)
“In The Blink of an Eye” by Walter Murch (11)
Throw in some extra cash for a bunch of firewire hard drives and some software plug-ins. Better yet, enroll in an After Effects or Final Cut Studio extension class at an accredited University, College or Community College, and you’ll be eligible for major Academic discounts on all software and some of the hardware I listed (plus you’ll actually learn how to use them).
3) Take Classes
Learn all the jobs there are to learn (from pre-production to post) even if you never end up doing them in the end. Knowing what has to be done, and being able to jump in and do it is empowering. It also gives you the ability to judge what’s good and what’s not so good when someone else is doing it. Master the digital realm. I know not everyone is a techy, but you have to become one. There is very little in the technical craft of filmmaking that isn’t partially or wholly in the digital realm now. It bums me out whenever a filmmaker I know doesn’t complete his or her project because they lost their editor and can’t seem to find someone to finish the cut, but they didn’t want to take the time to learn FCP and do it themselves. You need to know about digital acquisition, post-production and distribution. Otherwise, you’re just going to be left behind. You are the only person responsible for finishing your film. Take acting classes even if you’re a terrible actor. You have to know what the actors are going through in front of your camera. Get into a regular writing group or class with other writers, its to easy to get lost in your head and lose judgment when you’re writing on your own.
4) Watch Movies and TV Outside Your Genre or Style
I know you love those zombie-comedies (zomedies?), and you’re convinced you can do it better than anyone, but get Netflix and try watching films outside your particular niche interest. The best filmmakers I know have an encyclopedic knowledge of film history. They can rattle off really interesting facts and have amazing insight about the art of visual story telling. They can spot a good performance and deft editing as well as diagnose what’s wrong with a film. I’m not saying you have to know as much as Martin Scorsese to make a good film, but you’ll do better work if you know what other filmmakers have done.
5) Don’t Make One Film, Make a Dozen
If what you want to do is write and direct, then you need to write and direct. Meaning, you need to create as many opportunities as you can to get yourself above the keyboard, behind the camera and in front of actors. No one is magically born an amazing filmmaker, its never effortless or easy to make something good, much less great. You need as much practice at the two dozen skills you need to lead a group of people into the project of filmmaking. Make bad films, ones that will never see the light of day, or if your level of self-delusion is great enough, will never be seen by anyone other than the first level of screeners at a dozen festivals. How can you not screw up?
You will. And its a great experience to try something and fail at it, and not be hard on yourself, but learned from what worked and what didn’t. I have made films that no one will ever see, and I make better films because of it. Spend very little on the films themselves, and keep them short, like 7-9 minutes short. Keep the ideas simple, the dialogue sparse and tell the story with the camera and the actors. Use available light and available locations. Develop on-going, working relationships with actors — they tend to be very eager and hard working artists, so its not hard. You will learn so much from actors if you listen to them.The pillars of a good film are story, performance and editing. So either become a really great editor, or develop a solid working relationship with one. Develop you very own unique style over the course of a half a dozen short films. When it comes time to make a feature, use what you learned from the short films and expand that out into a longer format. Write a script you can do for the 10’s of thousands, not 100’s of thousands.
6) Lower Your Overhead
Move back in with your folks?
Maybe, if you can. A writer needs time to write, and the process of shooting and editing a project takes months. Do whatever you can to lower your overhead so you can stretch out that 100K. Time is the thing you need most. Time to write, time to take classes, time to mess around in After Effects, time to hang out with actors and figure out what they’re doing. In the end, you’re never going to see that 100K again, and you were so lucky to have it. And, since no one will make any money off of it, they probably won’t invest in one of your films again. So what do you really have to lose?
Investing it in yourself and giving yourself the time to become a good filmmaker is immeasurable, or at least not something that is measurable in dollars.
Be the filmmaker you want to be.
But do it one step at a time.