Recently, I was invited by the great folks at Film Courage to write an article for their website. The resulting piece – which you can read here: http://filmcourage.com/content/can-indie-filmmakers-unite-create-brand – are the thoughts I had pondering why there are not more known “brands” associated with consistently good film in this business. The article was not meant to be a call to action or a business plan, it was just hypothetical fantasizing. It did create discussion and I greatly thank anyone who would take the time to read anything I write (including you reading this), let alone share their own perspective. Funnily enough, as I read the comments something else that struck me was what the readers seemed to think of “indie” film.
What is an independent film? I had wrestled with this a few months ago when filmmaker Michael Barnard had asked his readers to participate in a survey that’s objective was to define what classified indie film. ( http://michaelrbarnard.wordpress.com/2010/09/25/just-what-the-hell-is-an-%E2%80%9Cindie-film%E2%80%9D/ ) As I read through the questions I found myself unsure. Is it budget? Is it attitude? The more I thought about it, the less I cared. Then something struck me:
I am not an independent filmmaker.
I made what most would consider a very independent film. That film faced and continues to face very unique challenges by being an independent film. A great number of the films I love could easily be defined as being independent.
But, I am not an independent filmmaker. I am a filmmaker.
If a studio gave me one hundred million dollars to make a dream project, I would do it. I would feel no remorse, no betrayal to a set of values. (I would, however, be scared shitless.) If I had a great story that I could make in my backyard for free. I would make that. Right this minute. I have neither of those options. It doesn’t matter. The struggles that must be faced to get any film of merit written and produced will always exist. I need no additional labels. I need no additional associations. I will always support fellow filmmakers regardless of what they are making. I will always strive to tell stories that I think are original and bring them to life with as many resources as possible to ensure they look and feel the way I think they deserve.
When I was younger I would have been more attached to the idea of independent film as something unique and special. I would have known down to my core what an independent film was, what it stood for and how much better it was than a mainstream film. In the last few years most of the truly great films I have seen could not, in a business-sense, be called independent and on the other side of the coin recently I have seen far more bad independent films than good ones, many that actually got into festivals like Sundance. Maybe it would be suffice to say that I have an independent spirit, but after reading the nominees for the actual Independent Spirit Awards, I’m not sure how much that would even matter.
I will always love the romantic notion of independent film, but at the end of the day the film is what matters, not how you made it.
Every day I read dozens of new articles, blogs and tweets piling on to the mountain of advice on how to build a career as a filmmaker. Some of these posts have proven very valuable, some have spawn heated debates in the comment section, and others seem to beg the question as to why they were written at all. It’s a lot to sift through.
Given all this information on film making I think it is helpful to remind those that aspire to make a film, are currently making films or even those that have successfully made films to the point where driving their Bentleys off a Malibu cliff side is a weekly occurrence of one simple fact. You need to make the best film you can. Duh, right? I guess another way to put it is if you have an idea that you would like to spend years of your life getting made into a movie, you had better be clear with yourself as to the story you want to tell and how you want to tell it. This must be the driving force behind everything you do to subsequently get the film before audiences.
If you cannot do this you are setting yourself up for failure. Anyone can make a film, the trick is to make a good one. If you have a good project that you have a complete vision for it will help you tremendously in making the decisions to get it made. It will also help draw those who can help you get it made and made well into your fray. I truly believe that talent rises. Your work will be your best advocate, your best marketing tool. Never forget that.
Nobody wants to make bad movies and yet so many bad films get made. Hollywood tries to second-guess audiences or re-heats past successes but even after decades of experience they still make more flops than hits. As indie filmmakers we are just as susceptible to these trappings. If you think of all the greatest independent films what was the one thing they have in common? They are made by artists that were true to their vision. Artists that saw something new and exciting and fought for it. This is why independent film found an audience to embrace it and this is what me must continue to do.
There is no “right” way to make a film. When I was lucky enough to chat with filmmaker Gary King he shared the same sentiment and I instantly liked him for it. I love this philosophy, a more constructive take on William Goldman’s famous statement about Hollywood that “Nobody knows anything.” It is true. The final product is the only thing that matters and the only tool you truly have to get to that point is your idea and the will to do whatever you can to see it through to the finish. Depending on how you eventually decide to make your film, you will have to wear many hats. If you get too bogged down with all the other things that can occupy your time it is easy to lose sight of the original goal. If you spend too much time obsessing about technology or money or marketing or audience – although they are all important factors – the film will suffer.
A year ago if you asked someone what crowdfunding was you would probably get a puzzled look. Today if you ask someone you will probably get asked to support their crowdfunding campaign. As I write this there are at least four campaigns I am supporting, if not with money (I am an unemployed screenwriter after all), by at least spreading the word. There have been four campaigns I have given money to in the past and I was very happy to support the filmmakers I gave to. There are a lot of success stories out there, but success breeds followers and now it seems like there is no end to the filmmakers and artists out there trying to get their projects funded in this manner. I wish them all the luck in the world, but I will never crowdfund and here’s why:
- Making films the way I ideally would like to is expensive. I am a firm believer in paying everyone that works on a project (except myself apparently) and making sure that people are hired to do specific jobs well. I want to have the tools to make the film the way we want with the schedule and locations we need rather than just taking what we can get. (plus I would prefer to never have to act as the caterer again) This may not make a movie good, but I have learned that it can greatly enhance the overall quality of the final product as well as your ability to eventually sell the film. You simply cannot raise that kind of money by crowdfunding. That is not to say that every film requires a big budget. There are filmmakers that can thrive in low to no budget scenarios and for them crowdfunding might be an ideal solution. I was happy to support Gary King’s campaign to make “How do You Write a Joe Schermann Song” and not only has he finished shooting the ambitious low-budget film, but based on his previous outings I have no doubt it will be a quality film. At this point though, I cannot envision any of our future projects getting made to our satisfaction on a budget that could be supported by crowdfunding.
- Successful crowdfunding is a lot of work. Make no mistake, if you want your campaign to succeed it will have to become a full time job for weeks and weeks. This money will not just drop into your hands from eager film fans in love with your project, it will come to you by people you connect with directly, engage with and win over. You will have to be creative and compelling far beyond the story you hope to film. I love what the “Tilt” team did to support their successful campaign. Julie Keck, Jessica King and Phil Holbrook have come up with all kinds of clever ideas to get people engaged in their yet-to-be-filmed thriller, the best being to create a virtual world inhabited by the film’s supporters, giving each their own character and back story in the fictional town where the film takes place. This was a wonderful idea that got them a lot of notice, but it also created a lot of additional work.
- I have a hard enough time choosing a film to watch, let alone what I would like to see get made. My Netflix DVD queue has over 80 films in it. My streaming queue has over 60. I have 50 hours of TV and films on my DVR. These are all things I would like to watch at some point. To add to that a queue of films that I would like to see get funded, get made and then hopefully watch is a little overwhelming. Not to mention the fact that most of the films I have given money to was because I liked the people behind the projects. I also liked the projects themselves or I would not have given money, but they would not have received the money if I did not have a connection with them on a personal level. I simply cannot sift through all the projects needing money to find one I would love to see get made on merits of the story alone, and that is unfortunate. My guess is this is the same for most people.
- I would be terrible at it. I have the wrong disposition to crowdfund. You have to stay positive the WHOLE campaign. You cannot get frustrated. You cannot guilt people into giving. I would crumble. I know it. At one point during Jerry’s Cavallaro’s campaign I sensed what I interpreted as despair and asked him about it. Jerry was not having much success getting the non-sequel to his smart and funny debut “Stuck Like Chuck” past a certain level of funding. My query to him did not come from a place of criticism, but from thinking I recognized a behavioral trap I would fall into. He may not have met his goal, but Jerry eventually learned a lot from the experience and even gained interest in the project from other channels. I think the tough reality of crowdfunding in this crowded climate is that most projects will not meet their goals. Personally, I would rather play to my talents and this type of solicitation is not one of them.
Guaranteed, one of the first questions I always get asked as a filmmaker is: “where did you get the money?” It is a fair question, and I hate answering it. The fact is movies require money to get made and to get seen. You can make them smarter and cheaper but you will spend money and getting that money has been the eternal quest. Crowdfunding provides one more option, but it is not easy money and in many cases it will be far from enough money to get your vision to the screen.