Thursday, December 28, 2017

What is production value & how?

I had a conversation with a fellow producer a while back about production value. He wondered what it was exactly and how to achieve it. I had already been well past the point of being enamored of gear and technique, and was of the mind that production value was (all things being equal) made possible by production design, wardrobe, and the actual faces of your actors.

In other words, it's the stuff you SEE in the footage. When I say "all things being equal," I mean two productions with roughly the same script quality, tech, personnel, budget, and capability, one putting more into production design, wardrobe, and casting will have a higher level of apparent production value than one which expends more budget on equipment, effects, or crew rates for example.

For example, say you need an "office" for a scene in a film. Oh look, there's an office! It has a desk, a window, and a computer. Perfect, right? You can stop scouting now!

But, obviously all offices are not the same. Here we have a nice view (production value) of more office buildings through giant corner office windows, nice woodwork and furnishings. Of course, if you need a boring, aesthetically crappy office, then that's what you need. My point is, you can settle for a generic "office" or you can spend more time looking for one you can afford that's nicer OR you can pay for a nicer office location.

Say you have to cast a male lead to play a romantic counterpart to your female lead. Considering that actors faces tend to occupy a significant amount of screen real estate, I'd suggest taking into account the aesthetic value of your prospective cast. Movie stars are movie stars for a reason. 

All things being equal (acting ability and experience) consider casting the best looking (or yes, most apropos) talent you can, especially considering you're asking an audience to stare at these people for 90 minutes (or 10 minutes). Human nature being what it is means people just prefer looking at attractive people. There are reasons why some very excellent actors have been relegated to character roles and only otherwise supporting roles in films. It's heart breaking I'm sure but a reality nonetheless that you have to consider. 

If nothing else, having a good looking cast will at least give your audience something nice to look at. Nothing against this guy here on the right, but he'll never be James Franco (or even Jay Baruchel). He may be your best buddy and willing to work for free, and let you use his garage, but none of that will be of value to your audience. What's that? He's a great actor? OK, fine, but he's still not James Franco. 

Remember, you're making your film for an audience of strangers (ya know, people who don't know you or care about you), not your family and friends. 

Considering wardrobe and how crucial it is to production value: years ago I filmed a friend's band playing a live gig at a club. They showed up wearing just what they normally wear; hockey jerseys, jeans, whatever. When they saw the footage, they decided they looked like a bunch of schmoes and didn't want to use the footage. They made an objectively aesthetic judgement that I couldn't really disagree with, but with a little forethought and maybe some guidance from a stylist, they'd have looked cooler to their audience and had footage to use in promoting themselves. 

My point is, if an audience SEES it in the frame, it's VERY important and really IS what gives a film production value. Remember films are very illusory. You are using the magic of filmmaking to create something 2 dimensionally that isn't real. You are literally creating a world for your film characters to live in and your audience to become immersed in. Consider, heavily, everything an audience will see in the scenes of your film. Even if it means you use 5 year old tech to make the film so you can spend more on these visual elements, do it.

Nobody in your audience will SEE the difference between a $10,000. lens and a $1,000. lens, but they will most definitely SEE and know uninspired mall bought wardrobe right off the shelf, an economy grade residential dwelling, and mundane locations with no depth or character.  

©2017 Chris Santucci

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Truth About Why Most Indie Films Don’t Get Distributed

I've written about this a bit regarding the idea that there's distribution and then there's distribution (where you actually get paid.) It used to be that a real distribution deal was nearly impossible without many of the elements mentioned in this blog post as well as high production value. Now, nearly anyone (as I've mentioned) can get a distribution deal for nearly any kind of film, but most of those result in zero payment, so you have to be selective in embarking upon a feature length film project because the odds are very, very high that you will see no return on your investment in time and money:

Friday, February 28, 2014

Staying in the game - professionally.

If you intend to make a living from working in the production world in part or in whole, you have to understand that there's more to getting hired than performing adequately (if you even do that.) There are a host of other things one should be aware of in order to keep getting hired which especially in the absence of experience or ability - can help get you hired often enough for you prove yourself:

Don't make more work for your employer

People get hired to work. That's the entirety of your reason for existence as an employee or crew member. The biggest part of doing the work means you're not creating more work or problems for your boss. Adding work comes in many forms:
  • Not doing it right the first time (necessitating the need for your boss to do the work themselves or requiring redundant activity to get it done.)
  • Requiring lengthy explanations or having discussions about minutia (know your job and do it but if you're not sure - ask, and don't get mired in peripheral stuff.)
  • Breaking/misplacing stuff (keep your head in the game 100% and be OCD about the small parts.)
  • Wasting time (your boss knows exactly how long it should take to perform a task - trust me.) 

Be early - Stay late

As a noob, nothing shows gratitude and interest like showing up early and staying late. If you're still learning the ropes it especially behooves you to show up early and stay late because it means you genuinely want to become a better worker, it shows that you're invested in the entire enterprise, and it shows gratitude for the work. Noobs who think they deserve regular and well-defined work hours can enjoy such rigid work windows in call centers and fast food positions.

Show interest

As mentioned, showing interest is always appreciated and noticed. This can take the form of merely your level of attention. Do you watch and listen, or do you spend more time socializing during moments of pause or breaks in the action? What you do with your time when these intervals occur says a lot about your interest. An experienced professional who is 100% effective and efficient with their time on work days is on another level than someone starting out, so bridging the gap in your lack of experience by at least watching, listening, and being nearby is amazing.

Don't brag about averting disaster

You might think it advantageous to show (after the fact) how you fixed something that went wrong on your watch but you have to be careful associating yourself with a malfunction in the first place. You might feel like a hero and you might very well be, but in the end, it's the completed work that matters, not how you got there.

Be responsive

Everyone everywhere has smart phones in their hands nearly 24/7. There's no excuse (for people living in civilized parts of the world) not to provide timely responses - ever. At the very least, confirm reception of a message even if you cannot elaborate right away. Not responding as quickly as possible gums up the works and slows down the whole machine because of the chain reaction of everyone in the chain waiting for a response.

If you're email is "screwed up," fix it. If you're phone is broken, get a new one. If your phone bill isn't paid, pay it and only then try to get work. A fully functional smart phone is an essential tool for getting work. Don't cut corners with a phone or phone service.

Be likable

No, not everyone is going to like you, but if you're likable it at least helps to keep a certain amount of people in your camp. If three people decide if you get hired again and one out of the three likes you, that can mean you get hired. Nobody wants to work with people they don't like, so being likable is essentially a prerequisite for survival in the work place.

Being generally likable as simply as it can be put involves making eye contact, showing a sense of humor, showing interest, being interesting, having some sense of style, speaking clearly and understandably, and offering to go out of your way for your employer.

And when you get "in," try to avoid being too political. Taking sides can bite you in the ass and always be nice to people you work with because you never know who may end up with the work.

Be thankful

Unless you work in a market where nobody else can do your job, you almost always have competition for your job in some form. I feel lucky to work in the industry I work in and as such, I tend to always go above and beyond whenever possible. Anyone who doesn't simply say - "thank you" in response to paying work is in trouble because when someone who's likable and at least as good (or better) at doing the same job comes along and they show the requisite gratitude, that could mean that they get the work instead.

A producer once told me she never got a thank you for the work she gave someone when she called me about doing that work instead. Say thanks. It's easy and it means something. People who give you work may not always (or ever) compliment you, but if they keep hiring you, that's the important thing. And don't make the mistake of ever thinking you're doing an employer a favor (by doing the work.) Unless you're a world renowned brain surgeon, the work you get is a gift.

©2014 Chris Santucci

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Screenwriting - The Basics

I'm not a screenwriter, nor am I a "writer." I spend a lot of time writing and I have spent a lot of time editing screenplays and reading screenplays. I have studied one book on screenwriting quite a bit which I credit in helping me form 2 finished feature length screenplays which I've gotten a ton of feedback on from Triggerstreet and American Zoetrope forums.

The Tools of Screenwriting is an amazing book that presents the nuts and bolts of screenwriting and also then compares all those elements to actual movies you've probably seen in an attempt to drive an understanding of it all home.

In my years as a filmmaker I've pored over many drafts of many different screenplays in an attempt to make them better. One thing I would say to anyone writing or who wants to write screenplays is - read "professionally written" screenplays.

There is SO much to be learned from reading actual screenplays that got made into successful movies. Especially with regard to formatting and the manner of writing that is most accepted for screenplays.

As for my meager contribution to the craft of screen writing, please take these items to heart:

What a screenplay is and is not

A screenplay is not a series of events in which characters do stuff.

I've had film stories explained to me in those terms multiple times by filmmakers, and each time I had to inform them that they in fact had NO story.

A screenplay in simplest terms is a A) Protagonist struggling against opposition in the form of a B) Antagonist in order to C) achieve something and during the course of this struggle, the Protagonist experiences "growth," better known as a "character arc."

That, in a nutshell is what you need to do with your film story. All the gun fights and carnage in the world will not mean much if you don't have these elements firmly established in a written script and depicted in your film story.

Save the drama for your mama

Beginner or untrained or inexperienced screenwriters tend to write stories that involve primarily arguments and similar conflict between characters. This in itself is fine, but when it's essentially all you have in a script, it can get very tiring for an audience.

Many of the feature length films I worked on as DP early in my career featured primarily characters bickering and arguing, with little else of interest. Constant melodrama in a film can work IF the script is crafted by a skilled writer. If you're a neophyte writer, do yourself a favor and steer clear of melodrama.

Start with an outline and an ending

It makes very little sense to just start writing, believing that it's somehow going to all work out by the time you reach page 90. Nobody ever sets out on a journey without a map unless they don't mind a high probability of failure. Without a guide, your script (especially if it's a first script) will more than likely end up a meandering mess or you'll spend far too much time re-writing.

Half the battle is a good outline. Think about that. Having all the major points of the story laid out in order will alleviate a lot of frustration during the crafting of scenes in the screenplay. Do it.

Don't ever start writing without an ending already determined. Again, nobody sets out on a journey without a destination in mind, unless it's only the journey that's important. To you, the screen writer, if you want something to show for your work - have the ending in mind.

Consider the names of characters

Use character names that are easy to remember and that don't sound or look similar. Even if your story is very well told, confusion can creep (for a reader) in when lapses in scene descriptions occur or non-linear story telling technique is employed. Confusion will ruin your screenplay especially if added to those shortcomings - you also have a high number of characters in the story. Pick names thoughtfully, as you would for your own child so that they're not distracting and not adding to the potential confusion a reader might experience.

Don't leave out scene intros

Consider this scene & character intro:


COLIN is wild eyed.  He stands over with a gun aimed at man on
tied to a chair.

OK... so as we're reading this, we're trying to form a mental image of the setting where the scene is taking place rather than just concentrating on the story, most likely based on the action(s) of the characters depicted.

The scene intro should set the stage for the scene with just enough words. Adding descriptive words that characterize the space is helpful. What size is the warehouse? What condition is it in? Is it dry? Wet? Clean? Dirty? What else is in it? Cars? Boxes? Nothing? Is moonlight streaming in through the skylights or is it completely dark except for a single nearby light bulb?

You don't want to write a book here, but a lot could be said in one sentence about the setting your characters are in and it helps to frame the scenes so a more complete picture unfolds in a readers mind.

Don't leave out character descriptions

As in the above scene and character intro, COLIN is not described at all. So this leaves the reader to forced into using their intellect to uncover who this person might be. THAT is not what you want a reader to be doing while reading your screenplay.

COLIN is holding a gun, so we know he's probably a male with at least one functional arm and hand, and two legs...

We don't know if this is in fact a male just because COLIN is a males name. We don't know the age of this character, the race, and nothing about them except that this person is "wild eyed."

"Wild eyed" is not nearly enough of a character description. Not even close, and again ONE sentence of carefully worded writing can provide a suitable mental image of this character so the reader doesn't have to waste brain power putting clues together to do it themselves.

Proof read - please

Nothing says "I don't care" to a reader more than poor grammar, spelling, punctuation, and diction. It's very hard to have a 100% correct screenplay, but if you have typos, misspellings, and odd phrases throughout a screenplay, you'll lose the reader and chances are you'll be asking for feedback on your work so don't make it harder for readers to get through your screenplay.

Take the time to proof read because not only will you look like a dumbass if you have more than a few dozen instances of the above shortcomings, but the reader's interest will wain if they sense you rushed through the writing.

The writing happens in the rewriting 

Don't ever think you'll write a script and then take your first draft and produce a film from it unless you don't care about anyone ever liking your film. Rewriting is what separates the men from the boys and it's where the story and dialog is made to really work for an audience.

If you're so enamored of your own writing that you don't feel rewriting is necessary, please stop writing.

If you're unable to improve a script through rewriting and aren't willing to pound away at the writing until it's perfect, please stop writing.

The writing really happens in the rewriting.

©2013 Chris Santucci

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Case study in independent film failure

Many years back I sold an Eclair Super 16 film camera to some guy from the New England area who told me at the time that he was planning on shooting a feature film with it.

As it turned out - he did.

His film went nowhere and he ended up posting it online for people to watch for free, which is really the only thing left to do when you discover nobody will buy, rent, or distribute your film. You're better off having people see your film than not ever see it, even if you give it away.

What good is a film if nobody can see it?

Anyway, this guy kept a pretty detailed and amusing journal of his entire filmmaking journey and it shows how all the good intentions in the world won't result in a film that will find an audience:, an independent film

©2013 Chris Santucci

Monday, June 3, 2013

The New Style

The internet obviously has supplanted television and now even movie theaters to some extent. Is the internet the new television? I'd say it is - and more. If the way I use the computer is any indication, I'd guess that people watch onscreen entertainment in conjunction with doing other business online on a regular basis.

I generally have one window playing a movie while I email and/or research, and anything else I might have going on (ordering gear, paying bills, etc.) I rarely ever watch a movie or web series while not doing anything else, and I'm sure I'm not alone. I often also have a 2nd computer working for me as well.

The computer is a multi-tasking machine. Other devices are less so, obviously, due to small screen size. And people are more than adept at multi-tasking and are expected by employers to have the ability to multi-task, so it's more than a personal preference - it's a necessity for survival in the work place.

People have become accustomed to watching onscreen entertainment in smaller and smaller sizes and in  smaller increments of time.  Viral videos are generally never longer than a few minutes and more and more filmmakers are turning to the "web series" format to tell stories, which in essence is a feature length film broken into smaller pieces or basically an episodic television series.

Asking a potential audience to sit still for 90 minutes and watch your movie is asking a lot, which is why films with no "name" actors get such little response.

Viewing tastes have changed as well as delivery methods. People are used to watching short video clips  all day long that deliver brief moments of entertainment and inspiration. People are well used to watching episodic television shows. And people, I believe enjoy the added dimension of being able to comment on what they are watching, which is almost always a feature of online video.

People spend most of their time facing the screen of a computer or a tablet or a smart phone. These machines are ubiquitous in our lives and will become the primary delivery methods for onscreen entertainment. And I fully expect interfaces to come about that display multiple streams of various kinds of information concurrently with entertainment.

As such, I'd say it's well past the time to start thinking about delivering films for viewing on small devices to people who'd rather watch in parts, especially when you consider the fact that the 2nd largest movie audience is the 18-24 year old Caucasian demographic who spend every waking hour staring into the screen of their smart phones and tablets and not concentrating on any one thing for very long.

Another aspect of delivery that I find important to think about is the fact that more and more are not watching films and small screen entertainment in darkened rooms anymore. It's becoming crucial to deliver a final piece in such a way that it will be viewable in open windowed rooms during daytime. When once a filmmaker might create dark scenes in a film which would normally be viewable in a dark theater, details would become lost when viewed in the more normal surroundings of todays viewing public.

Whether they watch while on planes, in cars, on trains, in school, at sports events, or at home, the key things to keep in mind are movie theatre attendance as well as DVD sales are declining. MOD streaming is the new delivery method du jour and YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, etc. are growing exponentially.

Consider the audience above all else or you will not have one.

©2013 Chris Santucci

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Film is Dead

It's almost impossible to get a distribution deal for an independently produced film anymore. These days, filmmakers are giving their films away to the public by posting them to torrent sites or putting them up on YouTube - just to get people to watch them. It's not even about getting into a mid level festival anymore which is nearly impossible, it's merely about just getting people to watch your film.

There are slews of bottom end festivals that you can get your film into, which not only gets your film seen by dozens of people, allows you to schmooze with other unknown filmmakers, and allows for the coveted laurel leaves to display on your website but the sad truth is, any distribution deal to be had through acquisition people attending those lesser festivals will generally not result in an advance, nor any real profit sharing potential.

I was party to a feature length film production where we secured a "distribution deal" that specified that once the distributor recouped their "marketing costs," (which were grossly inflated without a doubt) we would start sharing in profit from sales, rentals, etc.

Of course, that never happened.

These days, not only are there shady film "distributors" who are more than happy to try and wring a few bucks from your film while giving you a big donut hole in return (actually, deliverables are generally on you, so less than zero).

The dozens of low end "distributors" who handle no budget films do manage to get them into the rental realm and even into certain retail outlets for sale (until they get pulled for lack of interest from consumers), but the danger there is you are opening yourself up to the rage of hundreds of critics who will take the time to rip you and your film apart on any number of the online forums, especially IMDb, where the danger is - you end up on the Bottom 100.

There are also plenty of shady film festivals that similarly take advantage of filmmakers. And each festival you submit to generally means 35-50 bucks out of your pocket for the submission fee.

I once submitted a feature film to the New Mexico International Film Festival (now defunct of course) and found out they only accepted about 7 feature films, two of which were made by a buddy and working associate of the douchebag running the festival. Seems fair, right? Accept hundreds of submissions at 50 bucks a pop and only program 7 films, 2 of which were made by a guy you have a working relationship with?

I was DP on a feature film that managed to get into the Queens International Film Festival (now defunct of course) which as it turns out - was also a scam.

At the lower end of festivals, this is what filmmakers have to deal with. Withoutabox does not screen any festivals for the poor schmucks getting their email alerts every day about which of the 10 million festivals have a call for entries coming up. Why should they? The more festivals they can hawk to filmmakers, the more money they make. Plus, it's festival submission (not inclusion) that guarantees your film gets listed on the internet movie database (IMDb) which somehow legitimizes your film and seems to have become the booby prize for filmmakers everywhere who don't get into festivals of note.

There's even a "festival" that will charge you for an award!!! Want "Best New Director?" It's yours - for a fee. And, there's a "distributor" that offers "international distribution" for 2500 bucks (the last I checked - it's probably more now).

And when Sundance, the holy grail of film festivals, gets over 10,000 films submitted each year, you can expect that any of the top 10 domestic festivals are getting nearly as many submitted and those kinds of numbers do not make for good odds of ever having a film accepted, I'd say.

Kevin Smith said recently that if he produced Clerks today, it'd never get into a film festival and that, my friends means - it's over, because the odds are better that you'll get struck by lightning.

("Get you coffee?!?! I'm a director, man.")

So now the struggle has become to just get people to watch your film. That's what it's come down to. If you're OK with getting into a low end festival, and there's nothing wrong with that, and hanging out with a small number of folks who like independent films and with other filmmakers - there are an infinity amount of these festivals.

But it appears the recent explosion of cheap high quality cameras has resulted in an explosion of filmmakers which has resulted in an explosion of film festivals which more often than not are money making schemes which exploit the lofty aspirations of filmmakers who want to find an audience for their film. And desperate filmmakers are further exploited by bottom feeding "distributors" who offer that coveted film distribution, sometimes for a fee, and sometimes for the promise of actual distribution which generally means they make some DVD's and put your trailer on their website.

And so NOW, we've essentially come (back?) to - filmmaking for the sake of filmmaking, and that sounds kind of comforting and liberating in a way I suppose.

©2013 Chris Santucci