There were many times when I was in the process of making Justice Is Mind I remarked that my experience running a company helped create my first feature film. Producing a film is nothing more than project management and being able to compartmentalize numerous areas of a production. From personnel to the creative, it’s keeping everything in order, on schedule and on (or under) budget.
I can’t tell you how many times I come across filmmakers that are all excited to direct only to see a project fall off the radar in post-production or worse not promoted. When I think about it being a magazine publisher is just like being a filmmaker. Pre-production is the creation of the editorial, production is organizing the editorial around advertising with post-production creating the final product, distribution and promotion. Sounds like a familiar process doesn’t it?
When I was operating my publishing company we were financed on cash flow only after a brief round of investment capital in the first few years. I had to figure out ways to do things that saved money while producing a premium result. I’ve brought this experience to my film work. Back in the day publishing companies would over staff for even the most mundane type of work. No wonder when the financial bottom started to fall out in that industry their top heavy structure caused them to collapse. The same holds true for filmmaking.
Certainly for productions of a substantial budget (like a Star Wars), you need a sizable crew for obvious reasons. But honestly I was on a recent production and was astonished at the ridiculous number of crew they had to film a simple bar scene. First, it was clear that there was no rehearsal. Second, the production of the scene fell on its own weight when the moving of a camera position was a herculean time consuming task. This was not a science fiction production or one that was going to require any special effects in post. This was just a bar scene. I sometimes will go incognito to see how other productions execute. Sometimes I learn things that I take with me, but in the case of this production you learn what not to do (unless you don’t care about a budget).
I think the understanding of small crews came from my experience on set during those early days of publishing when I was frequently interviewed. Sometimes they would come to my office, but I usually would go to a location. Generally, there was just a camera operator, producer/director (who conducted the interview), sound operator and sometimes a gaffer (lighting). On occasion a makeup artist would be present. If there’s anything I learned about being on TV was the importance of makeup. Believe me the horror of seeing yourself on TV without makeup is something you’ll never forget! And with today’s high definition it’s just that, a makeup-less face will overly define everything.
On Friday I picked up the first three VHS tapes I had converted to digital. I have to say I think they came out pretty good. Of course things like this bring back all kinds of memories. It was a different time back then when social media didn’t exist (that wasn’t a bad thing). But when I look back we were always pushing the envelope. Creating targeted direct response commercials that ran during figure skating broadcasts, producing one of a kind themed cruise events and distributing our enthusiast magazines internationally.
If all this sounds familiar with how I produce and market my films, this is where it came from. But one does not execute alone. In all cases it’s about working with a dedicated team that sees your vision.
After my posting last week, I received a comment asking me how I took Justice Is Mind from a short film to feature. The off the cuff response? Not easy! But in all reality it comes down to patience, perseverance and above all planning.
There are a variety of films that go from short to feature. Some on the low budget side, like Justice Is Mind, and some on studio level. One example that comes to mind is the 2004 production of Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow. In that example Kerry Conran produced a short film of what he wanted to do (mostly all blue screen) and then through a series of events eventually connected with producer Jon Avnet who brought funding to the feature film.
I bring up the aforementioned example because for any of us that want to produce a feature film, you have to start somewhere. And that usually means self funding your project as a short film and then seeking out private equity, soft financing (tax credits, sponsorship), etc. to bring your larger projects to life.
I’ve produced two short films First World (2007) and Justice Is Mind: Evidence (2011). Both were designed to act as a calling card for my producing and writing but also as a capital raise effort to produce the feature length versions. While First World has screened all over the world and had a few 11th hour “green light” possibilities, the size of the budget ($2 million as independent and more like $30 million for “studio” level) coupled with the global economic crisis that took out a lot of film financing in 2008/9 (including financing for First World), put that project in turnaround.
But Justice Is Mind was designed to be produced for under $30k. After I produced and released the short film version (> $2k), I began what seemed to be endless presentations to producers and investors. It’s an arduous task of perpetual non-responses, to “no’s” to those that will string you along because they know you need the capital. But at the end of the day you have product to show – a short film that probably represents the salient portions of the larger story you want to tell. Having a short film also demonstrates that you are serious about your project and have risked your own money.
There are, however, some very practical things you want to do before you venture into producing a feature film. Do you have a business plan? Is there a distribution strategy? Do you have a target audience for your film? In regards to the latter, if your short film hasn’t generated that much excitement you might want to evaluate the feature. Finally, is your script shored up? Have you had it read by some industry professionals that you trust? In my case, I have about a half dozen people that read my scripts. Some are honest friends who tell me exactly what they think and some of them are industry professionals. They have either produced at a studio/production company or represent writers. And get ready, rewrites are simply part of the process.
If after producing your short film, you are successful in raising the capital to produce the feature there are a few things I would also highly recommend. While it may seem as a no brainer, organization is critical in time, people and budget. This is where I have seen so many projects fall of the track. Just stay true to your beliefs in what’s really needed to bring your vision to life and you should be fine. On the side of the actual producing of your feature, you’ll want to at least work with a crew that you have worked with before. I was fortunate to be able to work with some of the crew from the short for the feature. The level of comfort helps enormously while you settle into new working relationships.
As for pre-production, seriously take the time to get everything as lined up as best you can. Our financing came in late May and I took three months to prep for the feature. Do everything you can to secure your locations on trade in exchange for a credit and public relations support (we only paid $100 to a church). Trust me your budget and investors will be thanking you.
Finally, be sure to communicate regularly with your cast and crew on project status, timelines, etc. There is a final group to also involve in your communications and those are your backers. Without them your dream is on paper rather than on the silver screen.