Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Noob Effect

It's common for those starting out in any artistic endeavor to emulate the masters. All successful artists wanted to BE someone else when they were starting out in their craft. It's certainly normal to appreciate certain artists based on a persons own interests and artistic sensibilities and I think if you look at the work of aspiring filmmakers, I think you will see familiar technique, story lines, and visuals. This is sometimes due to what I call the "Noob Effect" and sometimes certainly due to a lack of imagination and creativity which dogs some filmmakers for their entire career until they realize they should have listened to their parents and gone to dentistry school. 

I've seen many well financed student films and less well financed non-student first films which all too often look and feel very much like they are trying to be a Spielberg, a Soderbergh, a Kaufman, an Anderson, or an Apatow film.

Emulating the greats is a fine way to learn and certainly a normal way to start out, but at some point, an aspiring filmmaker needs to develop their own "schtick." Really, as an aspiring filmmaker, you have to ask yourself if you're being too influenced by another filmmaker. Is your work obviously derivative of someone else's work? Because the truth is, your friends and family might love your low budget copy-cat film but a wide audience will not be found for a "Lite" version of films made by a prolific filmmaker working with huge budgets. 

Try to "be yourself" and if you don't know who that is yet, take some time to figure it out. Maybe just stop watching movies for a while. Look at other forms of art. Read books. Travel. Talk to people. Meditate. Take up a hobby. Serious wannabe filmmakers will do all that and more in an effort to mine their inner uniqueness and figure out how they can present a unique voice as a filmmaker. Growth is essential to the art of cinema and unique voices are always rewarded when time is taken to craft a great film that showcases a unique, meaningful perspective.

Certainly there's merit in classic filmmaking, but really, you need to stand out to survive as a filmmaker and having a unique voice, a unique approach is a great start.

©2009 Chris Santucci

Friday, November 21, 2008

The reality of Indie film success.

I've met scores of wannabe film directors in the past 10 years each of which have had their very own unique ideas (or non-ideas) about filmmaking. All were accomplished in non film related fields but all were film noobs that were convinced THEY had a great idea for a film - their first film.

First time filmmakers are an interesting breed. They may have had a brush with something related to film in the past, they may just be fans of cinema, or may just have a story they are convinced needs to be told in film format. They are almost always well meaning BUT in every case they had shortcomings that defeated their film.

I don't know what it is, but when noobs decide they want to make a film, they just lose (if they ever had it) the objectivity required to not screw it up. Objectivity: like when you have the sense not to apply for the CEO position of a fortune 500 company or when you carefully consider the odds of successfully flying a rocket to the moon from your backyard. 

Objectivity - it's a lifesaver.

Some might call it common sense, but I like to visualize the very basic components of 1) A person, and 2) A task, and 3) A thought process.

Maybe it looks easy or sounds easy - making a film. Maybe that's it.

Of the 11 first time filmmakers I've worked with in the past 6 years only 5 ever managed to complete a first film while none of the 5 has ever seen a dime from any kind of distribution deal. So far only one has completed photography of a 2nd film.

There have been a lot of years and dollars flushed down the toilet because of bad execution and/or bad scripts. 

I once met a guy who was convinced that since he moved his house from one site to another, HE could make a movie. He even told me that directing a film isn't as hard as moving a house and he never even directed a film before.

I once met a guy who self published a book that he wanted to turn into his first film. Not only was he to direct, but he planned to play the lead in the film. He was barely a writer and definitely not an actor and yet somehow, he was sure he could do this. 

I once met a PhD who seemed to think HE could just bang out a screenplay and apply his well thought out schedule to every phase of prep and production of his first film.

I once met a guy who sold half his business to finance his first film which he shot on 35mm film and which got into zero film festivals and is not available to buy or rent. His followup film, a no budget piece, ended up getting a DVD distribution deal which I'm guessing yielded zero dollars for him and is currently in the Bottom 100 on IMDb.

ALL these people failed and I could mention many more that I know personally. Some, I tried to help early on in the process, but what they all had in common was that they either didn't understand what I was trying to tell them, OR they just didn't heed my advice.

There are experts in the industry who will read your script or watch your finished film and give you their expert opinions for a fee, but let me save you some time:

Nobody cares how smart you are and that you can make a film for cheap (nobody who matters anyway.) If you think programmers at the Sundance Film Festival will be blown away by your $20,000. film that looks like a $200,000. film, you are mistaken. THEY won't care and distributors won't care.

Nobody cares that you're an outsider and that you somehow managed to accurately re-create the middle ages in your backyard.

Nobody cares that you shot your film over 6 months time on weekends only.

Nobody cares that you have 2 or 3 Oscar award winning actors in your film.

Nobody cares that YOU think you have a great film on your hands.

Here's the thing - If you don't make a GREAT film. Yes, a great film, not merely a good film, no-body-will-care about anything to do with you or your film. You may be able to reach a limited audience if your film involves an unexplored topic that is of special interest to a select group of people, but is that what you really want?

You don't make a film for yourself. Films are meant to reach wide audiences. You HAVE TO ask yourself ONE crucial question BEFORE writing or having a script written and ask this BEFORE shooting even one scene of a film:

Who am I making this film for?

copyright (2008) Chris Santucci

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

It's not just a job. It's a major pain in the ass.

I don't think any filmmaker who has ever produced a low budget feature length film on a normal 2 to 4 week shoot schedule would characterize the experience as being "pleasant."

When you're under-manned and under budgeted, it almost always happens that the crew ends up performing multiple functions and getting very little sleep. You can make up for lack of funds to a large extent by spending time prepping. When you have millions in the budget, you can throw money at problems left and right. You can shoot 30 setups a day because you have the manpower. You can afford to hire the best of the best crew, actors, and personnel who ALL know the drill and have all the necessary tools at their disposal.

When you have a few grand, or a few hundred grand to use in making a film, things are very different. At almost every step of the way, you have to make allowances and cut corners. You will have a small crew, some or all of whom will be entry level. You will be limited in everything you need - actors, locations, crew, equipment, food, transportation, props, and especially time.

Not having time on a film shoot is a killer. It means, you have to either go without coverage and/or you have to limit your total setups. As such, the one place you can afford to spend time on the film is in prep when you're not paying a crew, actors, and for locations. The last place you want to be is on location with a crew standing there, actors standing there, and a property manager standing there looking at their watch while you and your team try and figure out what went wrong with your shoot schedule.

On a small budget, you need to maximize what little you have by planning well. Part of planning well is starting out with a sound foundation that will help ensure a high degree of success. If you tattoo these 4 items on the back of your hand and heed these words, you will be WAY ahead of the game:

1) Tailor your script to your budget and abilities.
2) Get a "real" producer.
3) Prep, prep, prep.
4) Keep it simple.

1) Tailor your script to your budget and abilities.

First of all, don't allow yourself to be stretched. If you can honestly ask yourself if you have the ability to make a film (as a filmmaker) that many people will want to see and answer in the affirmative, then seriously think about taking Harry Calahan's advice and come to know your limitations. By really knowing your limitations, you will be better equipped to deal with making decisions about who you need to help you make your film.

2) Get a "real" producer.

If you've never made a film before or have never made a "real" film before (with a budget), don't even think about it unless you (at the very least) sit down with a professional freelance narrative film producer and go over the key things you will need to do in order to put every dollar of your budget on the screen. You may have a PhD or you may have years of experience as a brain surgeon, but that will not help you to make a movie. Trust me, you cannot apply other skill sets to film making unless you have a good understanding OF the film making process first. And, YOU are not going to reinvent the wheel and invent your own way of making films and of course, why would you want to? Get advice from a producer, OR get a producer on board. You can and should at the very least hire a producer as a consultant to edit and create a shooting script and then a budget and THEN ideally hire an Assistant Director to create a shooting schedule for you.

3) Prep, prep, prep.

Prep separates the men from the boys so to speak and will make a HUGE difference in the outcome of shoot days. When you visit locations beforehand and go over how you intend to shoot scenes and determine the how and the why and the when of not only lighting and shooting scenes but also considering the time frame and the fact that you'll have a mass of crew and actors, you will save yourself a LOT of headache later.

4) Keep it simple.

Don't stretch beyond what you are capable of. You DO NOT want to find out what you're made of on the set of your film. Trust me. If you have a limited budget then you have to have a script that is limited in ALL the things that cost money. If your script has any of these elements in it and you have little to no money, think again:

A) Blood
B) Fights
C) Car chases
D) Kids
E) Animals
F) Explosions or ANY practical effects
G) Vehicles of any kind
H) Extreme weather
I) Winter
J) Bodies of water (shooting on or in water)
K) Many locations
L) Large cast

copyright (2008) Chris Santucci

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The script HAS to be great

So maybe you're convinced that you have a great script (or idea) to base a feature length film on. It's everything the world has been waiting for in a movie and you have a burning desire to direct this, your first film, and thus show the world your genius.

Now what?

Maybe you already work in film or television and maybe you know everyone you need to either help you make your film or help you get it made. Maybe you have no connections to film & television but you know some really smart people eager to get involved with making your film.

Either way, as you start to think about HOW you're going to get your movie made, remember, the world is full of people with bad ideas, good intentions, and BIG egos, AND - You don't want to end up finding out that YOU are one of these people.

As I've mentioned, producing a feature length film is a monumental task. It requires a LOT of planning, the right personnel, a great script, a lot of time, and generally some money.

One thing I'd like to point out in regard to the screenplay is - YOU (the filmmaker) do not need to write this. Many, many filmmakers and Indie directors have it in their heads that they need to write their own scripts. This is probably the most prevalent bit of self sabotage I see most commonly with aspiring and first-time filmmakers.

Since filmmaking is probably one of the most collaberative ventures in the arts, why not break yourself of the thought (right away) that you need to write your own screenplay OR (another noob approach) do EVERYTHING yourself? If you direct a hit film, NOBODY will care if you didn't write the script. If you direct a film that goes nowhere, based on your own script, then it's ALL on you. There ARE people who love nothing more than to write, and film scripts in particular. Some even have a knack for it. I suggest an aspiring filmmaker or director think long and hard about whether to seek out a good script as opposed to writing one themselves. Don't waste your time, a crew's time, your investor's money, and a lot of good will just because some of your friends and your mother said they liked your script and you think you are an awesome unproven writer and director.


Whether you write a screenplay or you have someone write one for you, once you have one that you want to make into a film, have people read it. Spend the hundred bucks and send it to Scriptshark. Get as much feedback as you can from unbiased sources and if you get consistent indicators of certain things that should be worked on, work on it or have it worked on. It's common for a screenplay to go through numerous re-writes and revisions. Even professional screenwriters go through this process. If you think you can go into production with a barely revised script for your first film - think again. If you don't have favorable feedback from a select group of savvy readers whose opinions matter, in the form of excitement, then your script most likely needs work.

Once you get into (or beyond) production, it's FAR more difficult and expensive to go back and re-shoot scenes, or shoot pickup shots than it is to have the script work as written in the first place. If the story doesn't work on paper, it's highly unlikely that a first time or inexperienced director will somehow bridge that gap in filming. There's no magic that takes place during production that can make up for a weak script. Take the time to procure or to fashion a great script even if it takes a year, 2 years, or more.

Don't shoot anything until you have a great script.

The script HAS to be great.

copyright (2008) Chris Santucci

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

First Time Filmmakers - GET HELP

Seriously folks. I can't stress enough that you GET HELP when embarking upon the monumental task of making a film. Making a (feature length) film is like building a house and there ARE certain standards and time-proven methods for carrying out such a thing relatively painlessly. Why try and reinvent the wheel?

If you WERE building a house, you wouldn't run out and start haphazardly nailing a bunch of boards together would you? Why try and go it alone when you're a first-timer and you have very little idea HOW to (really) do it in the first place? Do you want to be a hero? Do you REALLY want to end up like the thousands of filmmakers each year who blow their life savings or max out credit cards or blow their rich friend's money on a 2 year long project that results in a film that nobody will ever see?

Start Here - 1) Make your script as good as you can. If you're a first time writer/hopeful filmmaker, get your script in front of as many people as you can, preferably NOT friends. Make it as good as you can with the means that you have available. Read scripts written by professional writers (available free), and try to make your script not only well written, but compelling, interesting, unique, and above all - NOT boring.

Then spend the money and send your script to a service that reads and provides "notes" and "coverage" on scripts. Then seriously think about acting on the feedback you get and MAKE YOUR SCRIPT AS GOOD AS YOU CAN. If you are bent on writing your own script, that's fine, BUT, DO NOT show it to family, friends, or close acquaintances. Follow the above suggestions and then you can decide if you even have a script worth sinking at least a year of your life into making into a film.

AND. If you're keen on making a film, don't be like SO many other filmmakers who think they HAVE TO write their own material. I know quite a few filmmakers who languish in "development" and fund-raising hell with wimpy scripts that they have written because they can't get anyone excited about it. If you REALLY want to make a film, DON'T fall into the trap that so many do - thinking you can (or have to) write a script that will make a great movie. Find out if you have what it takes to write a compelling screenplay BEFORE telling people you're making a film and BEFORE you waste a lot of time and money actually making a weak script into a film that nobody will want to see.

copyright (2008) Chris Santucci