By guest blogger Ben Larned
**Already planning to shoot your own film? Be sure to apply for the ScreenCraft Film Fund – offering up to $30,000 twice per year.
When dreaming of your first film, be it a short, a web-series, a pilot or a feature, you might be tempted to imagine the ideal situation – top talent, unlimited resources, and a wide, effortless distribution platform. In a perfect world, every film worth making would have these opportunities. Alas, the world – and the industry – are not perfect. Studio executives are, and have always been, more focused on the business of film than the art. If a story doesn’t seem marketable or lucrative, it’s pushed aside, sent back to the slush pile, rejected. And in today’s market, when studios are spending more money on less movies, it has become even harder to convince executives to take a chance on new material.
Does that mean it’s hopeless? Absolutely not. Most of the filmmakers helming today’s Marvel and DC films got their start independently. If you’re going to keep a franchise fresh, you have to prove you can tell a story first. And if that isn’t your main goal – to tell a good story – then you’re in the wrong industry. Iconic filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh, George Romero and the Wachowskis have all broken ties with studios to protect their visions. This is called making your own luck – creating a space in which to tell your unique story without the interference of studio heads. Independent filmmaking is catastrophically difficult, but not impossible, as long as it’s taken phase by phase.
Arguably the most important – and definitely the longest – stage of independent filmmaking begins with writing. And this is as it should be; regardless of how many resources you receive, it isn’t worth the effort if you don’t have a solid script. That’s where it all begins: make sure you’re telling a unique story through an authentic perspective. In the first few drafts, don’t worry about money – focus on narrative – but keep your scale contained regardless. Your epic science fiction masterpiece probably isn’t the choice for a low-budget production.
The next phase becomes attaching talent and trimming the script for resources. If you have a ten-page car chase or a massive crowd scene, it’s likely going to get cut. This is where the story becomes essential: know its core and protect it at all costs. If a budget-centric edit will ruin the story, don’t make it. For more tips in this regard, see Shadow & Act’s 5 Tips On Writing No-Budget/Low-Budget Screenplays.
Packaging, of course, comes next: you can’t make a film without the proper talent. And unless an Oscar winner owes you a favor, it’s unlikely that you’ll work with a known quantity. Bring together a group of people who understands their craft – successful framing, good lighting, authentic performance – but also who understands your vision. No one is doing this for the money at this level, and passion becomes key; if your cast & crew don’t share your passion, the film will never get made.
Of course, Money is also a factor. As a general rule, keep the crew pared down to the essentials. Some roles you can’t really do without – a director of photography, for example, as well as sound recordists and an assistant director/producer. Perhaps even an effects artist if your script calls for practical work. Keeping your crew minimal doesn’t mean the film will be cheapened, though. Werner Herzog shot his masterful Nosferatu the Vampyre with only 16 people; Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead production crews consisted of fewer. It’s all about working with skilled people, not building an army.
There isn’t much concrete advice to give about film financing. If there were, filmmaking wouldn’t be such a painstaking process. When seeking a budget, not only are you asking someone to take a gamble on a concept, there’s also a 90% chance they won’t get their money back. It isn’t impossible, though. Recent blockbusters like Cloud Atlas and Valerian are, surprisingly, independent films because they were financed without the assistance of a studio.
Foreign presales – selling distribution rights before the film is made – are the old-fashioned way to go; but with platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo bringing projects to their audience, and internet databases (such as Film Independent’s guide to grants and contests) giving easier access to external opportunities, the platforms have become more diverse. Unlike traditional funding sources, contests and grants like ScreenCraft’s very own Film Fund (which awards up to $30,000 for short films, pilots, web-series or features) are awarded for storytelling merit rather than return on investment. For a talented independent filmmaker, the merit-based advantages offered by grants are all but essential.
The key? Have an awesome, passionate project to pitch – one that targets a specific audience that shows pre-established demand for the film. If your story focuses on a marginalized voice, or a loved but oft-neglected genre, you can pinpoint more defined means through which to create it. And, of course, your vision must be unwavering. Once you know what you’re making, target your audience, through simple things like specified Facebook ads; or, if it deals with worldly issues, contact non-profit organizations about sponsorship.
When making an indie, this phase will likely be the shortest, simply because time is money. That’s why writing a script with limited locations and cast is essential. Identify the most vital resources that you can’t compromise on, though, in order to keep the vision solid. This doesn’t mean insisting on Steadicams and drone shots, though. We all want to emulate Orson Welles and Park Chan-Wook when it comes to camera movement, but endless tracking shots and crazy lenses are simply not essential to tell a story. You can’t make a film without good sound, though – if people can’t hear what your characters are saying, then the effort has been lost. The same applies to sound design and editing; small visuals can be made more textured and impressive through creative soundscapes.
Take stock of locations and aesthetic accents available to you (as genre masters Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson discuss in their interview with The Script Lab), then use them as they suit the story. If you create an interesting, textured and unusual environment in which to set your scenes, fancy technology becomes extraneous. Think of ultra-low budget films like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or Eraserhead – their environments and worlds are so fascinating and fresh, but contained enough to be inexpensive. Then you and your crew can establish ways to shoot them well with the equipment at hand.
This is a formula that even the studios haven’t figured out: how to get people to see your film. Of course, if your story has a specific audience – as mentioned above regarding financing – then the solution already begins to present itself. In a digital world, the options for getting the film out there become even simpler, but getting it to its audience is a massive challenge. Research regarding distributors and aggregators is vital in this regard. Producer Ross Putman discusses his experience with self-distributing the award-winning First Girl I Loved here – with streaming services and laptops replacing traditional TV channels and theaters, the options have become overwhelming, but exciting as well.
Get creative with your marketing, too. A24 recently opened a shroud shop in New York to promote the ultra low-budget A Ghost Story; they created a similarly cheeky scheme for Ex Machina through a robotic Tinder profile at SXSW. While it’s become cliched, Paranormal Activity revolutionized sensational horror marketing with the “audience reaction” footage that it placed in its trailers. And, of course, The Blair Witch Project incited hysteria when the team pretended the actors were actually missing. A clever marketing concept, calibrated to the precise tone and audience of your film, can give the project life beyond itself in addition to getting it seen.
Making your own luck in the film industry is painful – but when you’ve got a story to tell and it doesn’t fit the studio’s rigid formula, it is far from impossible. But it all starts with writing that unique, vivid story. And for more information on ScreenCraft’s recently relaunched Film Fund, click here.