The Empowered Writer (Part II): 7 Steps to Landing Distribution for Your Self-Produced Feature
About two years ago, I wrote a post here entitled The Empowered Writer: 7 Steps to Developing a Feature Script You Can Shoot. Shortly after, I put my (audience’s) money where my mouth was (we crowdfunded), and shot the script that inspired that post. Later this month, the resulting film — The Videoblogs — comes out on iTunes, Amazon, and select cable outlets.
So, today, I’m here with seven new steps to help you think about how you can take control of your own destiny and steer your script from page to screen without having to first wait for permission.
Step 1: Confirm Your Script’s Greatness
Writing is an act of ego. We must accept this. We must grapple with what the fact means — that we must act as if we are both special (because our story is important) and not special (because acting special doesn’t do us any favors). I make this first point only to quiet anyone who read that subheader and scoffed. If thou hast scoffed — chill. And understand that you might be looking at things from too narrow of a point of view.
Few people within the system will want to produce your script if it isn’t great. If we’re starting from that knowledge, and also producing our own work, then it becomes up to us to confirm that our script is great, not only in our biased view but also in the views of others.
Everything I wrote in the aforementioned prior post applies here. Beyond that, however, there are several signs you can look for to confirm that your script is camera ready.
Plan and execute a staged reading. Put real work into it. Don’t just invite friends. Invite acquaintances who are at or just above your same career level. Record the reading. Leave time for conversation. Listen to the feedback, and absorb it — even if you can only do this later, while reviewing tape. It’s normal to feel initially terrified and defensive when notes are fresh.
Get notes. This should already be something that you do, but I’ve noticed that a lot of people don’t go out for notes on “final” drafts. I think this is a mistake. We can always take one last look, and aren’t beholden to making any changes we don’t want to make. You can share a copy of your script with a peer or acquaintance who can’t make your reading. Screencraft has given me great notes in the past. There are a few other places where you can pay for professional notes as well. It’s arguably worth the investment, now, to address an issue that might cost you a lot more later to fix once you’re shooting or editing.
Check out your options and ask around to get trusted opinions. Make changes if necessary. If and when you have a very positive response to the material, you’re still not done! Since you’re also committing to producing your script, you have another proof of concept available to you: Casting.
Casting is relatively cheap at the low-budget level. It’s more of a time commitment than anything else, up to and including finding your way to the nearest major film-friendly city in order to provide yourself with access to a higher quality pool of talent. In today’s environment, you can also cast online, at least in early rounds. Once you are casting, especially as the process continues, take careful notice of how the actor performance of your words feel, and what they say about them later in their professional opinion. Your actors are potentially your greatest champions and allies as the writer of your script, possibly even more so than the director, if that’s not you (or even if it is). Great actors know good writing, and they know truth and can help. Let them. The film will be better for it.
Step 2: Execute and Overdeliver
This is production. It’s going to be hard. Don’t think for a second it won’t be.
Do your homework. There’s no excuse not to, with the amount of interviews, testimonials, blog posts, and podcasts out there from well-meaning, experienced filmmakers and related support organizations. I have a podcast you can listen to for info. No Film School is always sharing useful information for the DIY, bootstrapping filmmaker. Companies like Seed&Spark and Big Vision Empty Wallet run Twitter chats, host free informational events, and run support programs for production.
Once you’ve done your homework, hold on to your vision and don’t let go. Don’t let go when you’re tired, when you feel beaten, when all you want to do is quit and sleep and return back to a sane life. Production is always a nightmare. Low-budget and self-production are a nightmare with a side of poop fries.
But there’s honor in it. There’s pride, after the journey. There’s saying You Did It. And there are the results, which are yours to enjoy — a produced script.
Step 3: Have A Release Plan
Guess what? I know I’m really making all this out to be the Most Romantic Option for a budding screenwriter, but here’s more truth. After all the work and suffering of the prior two steps — you’re likely in for more work and suffering! Again, though, there are potential rewards.
Quite simply, it’s just not enough in today’s environment to do good — even great — work. You have to also separate yourself from the multitude of others whose “only okay” work is flooding any and all distribution outlets to which you and I have semi-democratic access. That’s just the reality.
Again, do research. Ask around. Ask me for advice — and others who have been there before. Hopefully, if you crowdfunded — or were smart enough to crowdfund, even if technically you didn’t have to do it — then you have some early idea of who your audience is, and how to find more people like them. Like I said, a whole new pile of steaming work.
There are shortcuts. The first step of any plan, after turning your great script into a great film, should be landing that great film at a reputable, recognizable film festival. But competition is steep, and so is the price of admission — in terms of both time and money — if you’re trying this strategy. Festivals are not the only way. But it’s arguably the most effective way, with the highest reward. Still, if you’re a writer and/or a producer, in today’s environment it’s a debatable point, whether you’re better off spending a year or more working the festival circuit or going direct to audience and then on to the next thing (for that audience and you).
So, really, you should have a few plans. The key is to know ahead of time, as the producer, who might watch your film and how to find them. Whether you turn that information over to a distributor later on, or leverage it on your own — you still need to know, unless you get lucky enough to level-up to the point where a smart marketer is being paid to do it for you.
Step 4: Keep Writing
This step is more like two half-steps, combined into one. The first is a sort of check-in on the reason you’re doing this in the first place. I’m going to assume that, if you’re here, the main thing you want for yourself is a screenwriting career. I’ve been directing my own scripts for ten years, and I’m still not sure that isn’t what I want above all else.
So, why do I bring that up now? Because, the aforementioned being understood, even while producing your own low-budget script (at least in part to boost your career) — you need to keep writing.
Suppose your self-produced project succeeds? Suppose you’re somehow successful at turning that great script into a pretty damned good movie? What question do you think you’re going to get first?
What are you working on now/next? If you really do want a career, you best have an answer. And it’s really not hard to squeeze in a new script in between waiting for an edit, or a sound mix, or a color pass, on a feature. I know this because I’ve done it.
Also, to return to the challenge of finding a market and audience for your project, I want to revisit a point made in that earlier post — the one about taking stock of assets and working with what you have. What I am doing right now, for you, is working with what I have. My film is coming out soon, and I want you to give it a shot. In exchange for that possibility, I am leveraging my experience with blogging, and in making said film, for your benefit. It’s what I have to offer, that’s of value to do, in place of a big marketing budget.
Take careful note — I’m also doing this honestly. That, in itself, is something an indie producer can leverage over the mainstream Hollywood system. Truth struggles as it scales from the top down. Not so, in the other direction. Exploit this. Use your talents for both yourself and your audience in new and consistent ways.
Blog. Tweet more. Have fun and do what you’re supposed to do as a writer, regardless of what’s going in with any one script you’re hoping will get you noticed or produced. Tell stories to anyone who will listen. In addition to helping you grow your career, if done honestly, this is also fun and fulfilling.
Step 5: Mimic the System — At Scale
It wouldn’t be the film business if I didn’t immediately contradict myself by telling you to copy the system, immediately after calling it out. But there’s one thing I want to point out before wrapping up with the final two steps, and that’s this — Hollywood does a lot right.
Look, they don’t do everything right. I wouldn’t have taken the red pill all those years ago if I felt they did. But one thing the system does well, much of the time, is marketing.
Here’s the dirty secret about marketing — it’s easy to do well. You just have to know your stuff (research again), plan and execute (strategy again), and do more of what works and less of what doesn’t (perspective again). And you need to spend time and money on it. I’d argue that you need to spend exactly as much time and money on it as you did in producing the film.
You won’t want to — you’ll be tired. I’m beyond tired, right now, even as I write this, on the tail end of my journey with The Videoblogs. Tired has become a part of my life.
But, you know what? I did it. I made the film and it’s being released.
Step 6: Initiate the Plan
Boots on the ground get butts in seats. Whatever your plan is — again — now it’s up to you to try it out and see it through. It will take time. A lot will go wrong. Sometimes, you’ll need to stay true. Sometimes, you’ll need to cut and run on aspects of your strategy.
It will hurt. You’ll have doubts. You will suffer. But if you show faith, and if you’ve executed, something good will happen. Perhaps it won’t happen on your timeline, or in ways you can immediately see and reflect upon, but few things in life ever work out in that way.
Step 7: Trust Fall
I’m on this step now. I’ll let you know how it goes. If you have any questions, hit me up in the comments or elsewhere on the web. And, if you decide to get crazy and give this self-producing thing a try — good luck with those poop fries.
Michael DiBiasio is a Writer/Director living in and working out of Brooklyn, NY. His crowdfunded first feature, The Videoblogs, toured nationally for Mental Health Month in May, and hits VOD (iTunes, Amazon, Verizon Fios, Frontier Cable) on July 22nd.