Thursday, February 4, 2010

Direction, the Director and Directing

I have no idea how to direct other than what I have read in a book, albeit a good one.  Deep down inside I know I can do it, but I am not about to place a bet on it professionally.  I can only tell you how to hire a Director.

In my experience, experience matters.  If you are hoping to get investors, actors, distributors or the public interested in your project, hire an experienced Director.  If you are making a no-budget film on DV, direct it yourself and become an experienced director.  Ditto if you are coming out of film school; direct a student project.

What I look for in a Director is experience within the genre of the film I am making.  They also need to have a passion for the project.  I look for someone who is knowledgeable about financial concerns and can adapt under pressure to deliver the shots whether on time or on a contracted schedule.

Directors need to gain the trust of the cast.  Actors are artists at the core.  They get into their roles.  A Director should know how to guide them and encourage them.  A Director that connects with cast will bring out the best performance.

Directing is not just about bringing the performance out of the talent.  A good Director is a good technical person.  Someone who can visualize every shot and how each fits into a sequence, and the sequence into the whole.  The Director works with the Director of Photography or Cinematographer and camera team to establish the look of the film.  They work with the Set Designer and art department to build the environment to match the desired look.  He/she works with the Costume Designer and Prop Master to dress the people and sets appropriately.  And finally, the Director work with the Visual Effects Supervisor to deliver elements to the film that do not exist in reality.

It is invaluable to have a Director who does not have tunnel vision and can address issues of budget and schedule with the Line Producer or Unit Production Manager.  During the shoot, the Director must work with the Production Manager to make sure that their are sufficient resources to complete the project with the Director's overall vision in tact.  A Director that treats the production office as a "bunch of suits" only puts their own reputation and vision at risk.  Sometimes change is unavoidable.  Alternate courses must be chosen.  The best Directors understand this and find creative solutions which often work better than what was originally planned because they are based on ingenuity.

The Director must create and share their vision of the film with the Producer.  In this regard they are your partner in "delivering the goods".  Since the Director is usually brought on board in Development or Pre-Production and stays through delivery, you will spend a lot of time with each other.  It is important to build a solid relationship and foundation of trust and communication.

Most Directors are given a Director's Cut as part of their deal.  For many reasons, as a Producer, I will not always give Final Cut to a Director.

While a Director's Cut is not the Final Cut, it is the direction headed after the Editor delivers the Fist Assembly.  I usually consult with the Editor and Director about my wishes and vision prior to the Assembly,.  Once the Director delivers their cut, time is of the essence and so choosing a Director who is open to suggestions is important for me.  If there is a firm delivery date for the film, it is difficult to re-edit the film from scratch after the Director's Cut.  Having a relationship built on communication and trust greatly reduces the likelihood of unforeseen surprises.

After Picture is Locked, the film goes to Sound Design and Score.  The Picture is also Color Corrected.  The Director is usually involved throughout this process.

In the end, the film's success is usually attributed to the Director, and its failure to the Producer.  Choose your Director wisely.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

My apology to professional screenwriters

Craig Weisz made a comment on my blog post (Casting) and asked if I had seen the article below by Josh Olsen:

I re-read my post (What's the story?) and realized that it came off like I was making writing sound easy.  I meant no disrespect.  In fact, I too am a screenwriter and I KNOW how difficult it is.

Writing a screenplay is hard.  It takes a lot of time and effort to get a first draft.  It takes numerous re-writes to get a draft worth sending out for professional consideration.  And from there, there are numerous re-writes and notes and re-writes.

When you submit a project to an agency it will most likely be read first by a reader who is typically a writer too.  Positive coverage is screenwriter gold.  The reader knows this.  They only forward the best of the best or ones they think has potential (which of course is subjective).

Most people cannot write.  Period.  I do think most of us have a story to tell.  If we are willing to put in the time, we can create something worthwhile.  It may never get made, but that is statistically the norm.

For writers, part of the process is therapeutic.  You dig deep into your soul and pull experiences, emotions and thoughts from the memory bank and use them in shaping your fiction.  Even if you shelve your script once you write it, the process will have set your mind free.

Anyone in the film business has been in the position Josh describes.  Try being the acquisitions executive stalked by a producer who promises "The Matrix" only to show you an unreleasable mess.  Or being the sales agent trying to help a friend get a project off the ground only to have to tell them that the market is not responding despite all their hard work in putting a package together.

It is tough, as Josh says, to get a professional to look at your work when they have their own projects to work on and need to look at projects for pay from  their reps.

It is important for writers to observe etiquette when asking someone to read their work.  If they don't then the person being asked is not obliged to do them any favors.  Can you imagine asking your lawyer to review a legal document for free?  Or your accountant's response to filing your taxes without compensation?

In my post on writing I mentioned there are script analysts that you can pay ($150 to $1000) to review your work.  You could even find an out of  work reader with agency experience and get coverage for $50 to $75.  They will be brutally honest.  They will also critique and guide you to issues you will need to work on.  Some will offer script doctoring services or continued reviews at reduced fees.  I cannot attest to the value of that since I have never gone further than an initial assessment, but these services are available.

Once you use such a service and re-write your script until you get positive feedback from several sources, then and only then is it worth approaching a professional for their valuable opinion.  And when they give it, you will hopefully get a fair shake and be invited to submit future work because you did not waste their time.

What I have learned from my own writing experience is that my taste in material has ultimately improved.  I am much more critical of what I read.  I am also much more appreciative of the writer and his/her craft.  If I gravitate to better material I will make better movies.  And that is the name of the game.

What I want to say in conclusion is this:  It is tough to be a writer.  It is even tougher to be a good writer.  Many good writers never see their work make it off the page.  As much as there are reasons not to read someone's work, there are good reasons to do so.  While the pros don't have to cave in and read a submission just because, we should encourage newcomers to the industry because our industry is changing.  Brilliance lurks just around the corner!

Sunday, January 31, 2010


When casting a film, there are two schools of thought.  The first is to attach actors and then go looking for the financing.  The second is to secure the financing and then go out to talent.  Either way works.

If you are a known producer or director you will have an easier time attracting talent prior to having your financing in place then if you are a first timer (unless Brad Pitt is your best friend).  Even then, most actors will not completely commit to a project unless the funding is in place.  This is for a lot of reasons.

The first is that actors have agents and managers looking out for their interests.  These representatives may allow their clients to lend their names to projects if the rest of the package is solid or if there is a personal connection to the material - like the actor's production company owns the rights to the script - but short of that, there is no real incentive for them to be "locked" into doing the project if the financing is not in place.

The second is that they realistically cannot say whether they will be available or willing to do the film for an amount affordable to the producer as and when the picture is funded.

Lets say that in a purely fictitious example you had a deal with Kiefer Sutherland before he signed on to "24".  He was a popular and well paid actor before the show, but let us hypothesize he wasn't getting the roles he wanted or the money he deserves.  He commits to your project and you agree to pay him his usual fee and off you go to find the money.

Then, he gets the role on "24" and a month later you say you have the money to go into production immediately.  He is no longer available.  Your investors agree to wait until after the first season wraps.  But Kiefer wants to spend time with family or he gets an offer of double that amount to do a film right away.  If he is locked in, then he misses out on better opportunities.  If he is not locked in, this scenario can continue for years until either the project goes away or he is available and you have enough money to afford his new quote.

A riskier version of this is that you agree to make a pay-or-play offer.  This essentially means that if you do not start production on a certain date you owe the money, or a portion of it, to the actor regardless.  This may be a good route if you are confident the funding will materialize in time, but  otherwise just a gamble.

I prefer to have my funding in place before going out to talent for many reasons.  What I have written above is part of it.  The other is that you never know who you are going to get interested in the project.

Lets say that I have the financing in place with $200,000 available for the main star.  I hire a casting director and the project goes out to the breakdowns.  I not only get the benefit of having my casting director pitch the project to the agencies, but the agencies can pitch their clients to the casting director.

Suppose I get really lucky and a manager knows his client is dying to do a film based on the subject of the project.  The actor is available and will do it for the amount I have despite the fact that they normally get double that amount.  Win Win.

The other part of that equation is the word "available".  Actors that are in demand are usually working or getting ready to work.  If you are ready to go into production in a week and the actor is booked for three weeks you may decide to push your production start date for that actor.  At least you know where you stand from the get go.

Additionally, actors are human and have human needs like all of us.  If an actor had a need for additional cash to cover an unforeseen financial obligation, they might want to get their next job sooner than later.  Or, perhaps they have a child going to college and another baby on the way and need to plan for that with an added chunk of cash.  Sometimes, you can get better talent than you can normally attract for these human reasons.  I wouldn't count on it, but it is human.  And certainly this happens less, if ever, with the big stars.

When casting, I like to know who is hot directly from the marketplace.  Internationally it has always surprised me to learn who is popular in Germany or Japan for example.  The US market is somewhere between 40% to 60% of the market depending on what day it is.  That means that foreign territories are worth about the same.  If you know which male actors are popular in a territory that is worth 10% of the overall market, that is an actor you should be considering.

Needless to say we are not talking about the big box office actors who work everywhere.  This is, after all, a blog about indie filmmaking.  We are talking about the actors that will do a potentially non-theatrical film.  The list of these names change day to day.

Finally, if you can afford it, I honestly suggest you hire a casting director.  Not only can they save you time in your search by giving you realistic expectations, but they also know who will be available, when.  They also have access to those Hollywood agents that might not return your calls.

Most important of all, casting directors know how to negotiate the finer points of a SAG contract and how to deal with the requests of talent or of agents/managers on behalf of their clients.  Ultimately it is up to you, the producer, but they can certainly give good advice.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Production Finance

This is the holy grail of filmmaking.  MONEY.

Outside of having a studio deal, there are only three ways to finance a film:  Private equity, debt or some combination of the two.  But wait, you say, there are all sorts of new models out there.  Well, yes there are.  Web 3.0 is creating all sorts of ways to get a movie made, but regardless, having a sound understanding of how motion pictures are funded in the "Old School" way is extremely important.

We will put a pin in the discussion of financing in the new era for now.  At this point in time, the majority of films are financed using traditional methods.


Equity, as I said in a previous post, can involve securities.  Depending on how many people you are asking to invest, you will need to know what the rules are in your state or country.  Some states will allow you to ask a dozen or so people to become members in an LLC or partners in an LP without registering as a security.

Before you ask anyone to invest, get a business plan together, put together your marketing materials and marketing plan and then get a lawyer to create the investment vehicle - whether an LLC or LP or a C Corp if you are planning on selling securities.

I like LLC's but that is just my preference.  I personally like to have a litigation attorney who has a corporate law partner set it up and have them caution me relentlessly about the securities rules so that I don't violate them.

Equity involves risk to all parties that are involved.  I am not giving you legal advice here, so don't just go by what I am saying.  HIRE A LAWYER!  This is not a game.  Make sure you know what you are doing.  You can get in trouble.

Whether you are asking your rich uncle to put up all the money or creating securities to sell to the general public, you still need a legal entity to be created and maintained.

Let's say you have all of the elements necessary in place to solicit investments.  How much do you ask for?  Well, how much do you need to make the film and operate the entity for three to five years?  Don't get crazy, but once you make the movie, you will have revenues coming in and out of that entity for at least several years unless you sell it outright to someone.  You will need to file taxes annually and there is a cost to this.  You will also need a bank account (cost there too).  Accountant - get the picture.

What does the investor get?  I am not going to touch this subject in specifics.  That is between you and the investor.  There are many schools of thought on this.  In my view, the investor should be paid back first out of revenues since you will presumably take a fee during production and some sort of maintenance fee for managing the entity for the foreseeable future.  And what exactly do I mean by revenues?  Money going into the entity - in other words, net of distribution fees and marketing expenses.


Many films are financed just like a house is financed - though a bank.  You provide the bank with collateral that is acceptable to them and they will loan you the money.  Many banks in the industry will take pre-sales as collateral.  With credit tight these days, you may need collateral and equity of some amount to get a deal done.

With debt financing you need to make sure that you consider the cost on the money when determining your budget.  If you borrow $1 million, what will that cost when you add in the interest charge?  Lets say it ends up being $1.3 million.  Can you get back that much from the marketplace in the time given to pay off the loan?  If not, you may lose your film to the bank just like when someone loses their house in foreclosure.


As I mentioned, you can do deals with a mix  of equity and debt.  The machinations of what these deals look like are endless.  For example, I did a deal where investors in another country bought tax credits valued at 100% of their investment and were allowed to get back over half of their investment penalty free provided they had a guarantee in the form of a letter of credit.  They would essentially front the money for the entire budget.  So I got the L/C, which I collateralized using sales that a production lender accepted.  The lender also gave me a gap.

A simpler version would be something like your uncle Tom invests 20% of the budget, you sell the movie to a studio in the US for 35% and you get tax credits from the state of Michigan for 40%.  Your sales agent says that foreign is worth 100% of your budget and based on all of this, the bank lends you the money to make the movie in anticipation of collecting the tax credits and the US sale.

This discussion, again, is not meant to give legal advice.  It only touches the tip of the iceberg.  Since this is a blog meant to spark discussions, this should be seen as a starting point.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Pre-production encompasses multiple activities prior to commencement of production.  The "big ticket" activities include breaking down the script, putting together the financing, creating a budget and schedule, casting and finding a director if one is not attached already.

Since my background is sales and marketing I have always used this as my starting point for financing.  Once I have a script that I like and think will fare well in the market, I pre-sell a certain percentage of the budget to distributors or broadcasters throughout the world.  I usually find that if I can pre-sell 30% of the budget I have proven to myself and to potential equity investors that the project is viable.  If I manage to pre-sell 80% of the budget I can borrow the money from a bank.

If you have never pre-sold a film make sure you know what you are doing or hire someone that does. The topic of pre-selling is too important and detailed to try to gloss over it here.  Finding equity is equally as important and detailed and since it can involve the sale of securities it is not a topic to gloss over either.  Both will be discussed in detail at another time in a future post entitled "Financing".

When it comes to casting I believe that money talks.  I am often asked to look at projects with actors attached.  This can be helpful if the actor attached loves the project so much that they are doing it for a reduced rate to help it get made.  Many times, however, I see projects come to me where the filmmaker has attached someone who is charging them "rate card" and the project is vrtuallly unmakeable given the costs already associated with it.

We will come back to casting again later as well.  Here is some food for thought in the meantime.  If I wait until my financing is in place before I start casting, I can hire a casting director who will put the project in the breakdown service which all the agencies read.  From there, not only can I pitch the project to actors I am interested in, but the agents with actors who are available and looking to work on a project in a genre or role similar to what I am making have an opportunity to pitch me on their involvement.

The main point is that you never know who you might attract and you don't waste time on talent that is not available or not interested.  Once you have your financing, you usually also have a start date and it is human nature to be motivated by deadlines.

Equally important for the project is breaking down the script and generating a first pass budget.  I used to hire people to do this until I learned estimating and take-offs for construction in my real estate business.  Even if you ultimately hire someone to do a more thorough budget and breakdown, the fact that you know the project inside and out will ensure that you hire the right people.  Having the wrong production manager or UPM can lead to disaster.

I recommend Planning the Low-Budget Film by Robert Latham Brown for learning the process and for using as a guide while you break down the script.  I also recommend The Budget Book for Film and Television by Robert J. Koster for actually setting up a budget program and doing the data entry UNLESS you have the money to buy one of the great programs already available and which include additional data on labor rates etc.  Entertainment Partners Budgeting is one that despite being expensive is used frequently by many in the industry.  Movie Magic Budgeting has a bundle that also includes scheduling.

I personally do not own the programs.  I feel that if I break down the script and get a general idea of the budget using the tools I recommended, I will then bring on an experienced production manager.  Bear in mind that the cost of having a professional production manager do a full budget for you is usually more than the cost of the program, but they are professional and are a second set of eyes on your project.

Armed with the breakdown and first pass at a budget, it is time to start talking to people.  On one hand you will start talking to directors, distributors, financiers and talent.  On the other hand you will start talking to below the line talent to bring  on board as department heads.

By the way, below I am including a list of the films I have either produced or executive produced.  You do not need to buy them to follow along through the process of this blog.  I may refer to them from time to time, but like I said, you will not need them.

I will make sure my comments are general and anecdotal when I refer to them.  If you do want to buy them, you can link below to Amazon where I am an affiliate.  As an affiliate I will make a tiny bit of money if you buy it there.  If you object to me making money, go to another site or buy it from the distributor.  I can assure you I make NOTHING extra that way!  You could also wait to see them on cable...

My Brother the Pig
Tale of The Mummy
Beneath Loch Ness
Good Cop Bad Cop
Attack of the Sabretooth
God Sex and Apple Pie

Friday, January 8, 2010

What's the story?

First, let me say that I was wrong.  Not everyone wants to be in the film business these days.  It's all about apps!  It is amazing what is being created in that space, but that's another story.

Speaking of story, filmmaking starts with story.  Period.  If you don't have a good story to tell, then there is no movie to be made.

Stories are being delivered in new forms and formats but at the core, the story  needs to be compelling to attract an audience.

As a screenwriter I have toyed with different ways to develop story.  The first script I wrote I did freestyle - started writing and let if flow.  Big mistake.  I ended up doing countless re-writes and eventually had a mess on my hands.  I eventually got a pretty decent script, but I would have saved myself a lot of heartache if I had planned things out better.

The system that I think works best is this:

Start with a logline and a theme.  Back when TV Guide was big, this was how we chose what to watch.  A catchy one or two line description of the movie.  If you can describe your story in a line or two it is still a meaningful exercise especially if it conveys the central theme of the piece.  You may want to blast the message on Twitter so try to do it in 140 characters or less.

Next, write the synopsis.  This is a longer piece, two or three pages, that conveys the story succinctly.  It also comes in handy if you need to memorize it for your elevator pitch with a studio exec.  The synopsis is a living document.  You will start with the beginning, middle and end but you will eventually fill in additional information and update it constantly as you re-write your screenplay.

I will probably get flack for not crediting the source (mea culpa) but the elements of the synopsis include the "uh oh", "oh no",  "no way!" and "Oh My GOD!" moments that will be the turning points in the story that will make us want to watch.  With each passing act, something must happen that is increasingly difficult for the hero to overcome.  Eventually we are led to the climax.

Once you have the 5 to 7 most important "beats" of the story, you will need to fill in the rest.  That is where the Beat Sheet comes in.  It breaks down the story into minute detail.  Once you have this, you are ready to write the script.  And re-write it and re-write it and re-write it.

A smart person once said that writers don't write, they re-write.  It is hard to take criticism, but if you listen carefully to critiques of your work, you ultimately get a better finished product.

Writing  a script is not hard.  Writing a good one is very hard.  Writing a script that gets bought is rare, and one that gets made is miracle.  That's how tough the business really is.  Here I am speaking of the tradition movie business of studios and agents, networks and distributors.  In the new media realm it is altogether different and we will come back to this later.

Producers and directors do not always write their own scripts.  Most are optioned or commissioned from writers.  Regardless of whether you write your own  or purchase or have one written, you still need one before you can go any further.

Once you have the script, you will turn it into a 10-20 pages prose version of it which is called a treatment.  The period of time it takes to go from idea to script is called Development and it can last a long or short time.  At the end of the period, the filmmaker is ready to enter the next phase of the process armed with a screenplay (which has been re-written, tweeked, sliced and diced and put back together hundreds of times), synopsis, logline and treatment.

Although Development is a pre-production activity, once development is complete, the filmmaker enters Pre-Production.  In this phase the filmmaker will look for money, talent and distribution as well as go into Preparation for production.  All this will be discussed in detail in future posts.

Turning back to story, I can recommend the following books to help you through the process:

The Hero with a Thousand faces

Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting

The Writer's Journey

20 Master Plots

These are all from my personal library.  Other good ones exist so feel free to seek them out.  The one you cannot live without is Hero with a thousand faces. has some great books too.

If you are going to write a screenplay, you should get a good screenwriting software.  I use Final Draft.  Others exist and I am sure are good, but I have never used them.  Most are available by download so it is very easy.

 If you write a screenplay, register it with the Writers Guild of Amarica or the copyright office.  I don't think any explanation is needed for why this should be done.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

So you wanna make a movie?

When I was in college everyone I knew wanted to work on Wall Street. Now its show biz. But the media landscape is changing and what was once a lucrative market for entrepreneurial independent producers is getting tougher by the day.

The web, user generated media and a multitude of other factors makes this an exciting, yet volatile time for the independent filmmaker.

CinAvis is designed to help independent filmmakers navigate the waters of making a motion picture with some friendly and FREE advice from someone who has been through it.

I will start by going through the movie making process step by step. From developing a logline to delivering a master with split M&E tracks for foreign distribution. Along the way I will hope to provide insight on where I see the market headed and how today's producer can take advantage of opportunities that weren't there even a few years ago.

This blog welcomes comments and conversation. For more about me, look me up on IMDB.

My next post will be on how the process starts, with an idea, a logline and where to go from there.