Saturday, April 30, 2011

High Concept for No Budget: TURKEY BOWL

In Hollywood there’s always a lot of talk about the “high concept” story. High concept essentially means a film that conveys its tone in the simplest terms. The best example of high concept is the film Snakes on a Plane. Immediately, just from the title, we can expect a silly, action packed adventure. For no budget movies, “high concept” means we can easily see the film’s tone AND how it can be made for a small budget. A great example of this is one of my favorite films at SXSW this year Kyle Smith’s Turkey Bowl.

            I was talking to a filmmaker at the festival and he, of course, asked me what I’d seen that I liked so far and I immediately told him about Turkey Bowl. I said,
            “It’s about a bunch of friends who get together for an annual football game. The film starts when they walk onto the field, and it ends when they leave.”
            He blinked at me for a few seconds, then said,
            “That’s f—ing brilliant.”
            And he’s RIGHT. The film is essentially a real time football game. Cast of ten, one location, shot in ten days.
            I had the opportunity to sit down with the director Kyle at La Esquinita in Echo Park for some $1.50 tacos – which he had to pay for after I discovered I had no cash! Doh. I also discovered that not only is Kyle a great filmmaker but he’s a chill, down to earth dude.
            Kyle funded his movie with winnings from a reality show game show called "Crash Course" which featured normal people doing crazy stunt driving. "It was ridiculous," he says. His total budget was in the $20,000 area. Two of his biggest expenses were camera and location. 
He shot on the Canon 7D, which he purchased as part of the overall budget, he then tricked it out with matte boxes, follow focus, etc. To save money he didn’t use a monitor, so he never really was able to watch shots, which seems hard.

DP Jeff Powers and the 7D
While the location seems really easy and cheap, the fear of showing up one day and having construction or a kids' soccer game going on convinced him to not steal the location but to get it the legitimate route. Booking public places in LA is all set up through FilmLA which is a very helpful service, but it isn't really geared toward low budget projects. Expenses include a $700+ application fee, site rental, and an hourly rate for a "Monitor," who sits, watches and gets paid. When we shot White on Rice’s movie within a movie sequence our Monitor also stole some samurai prop swords as well – so they watch you, but you have to watch them as well (all right, I have no proof it was him, but he's my main suspect). Site rentals vary and can be very high. For Turkey Bowl the Monitor showed up the first day and decided that monitoring it was stupid and left. So the filmmakers didn’t have to pay for a Monitor. Which was a nice break. Kyle had considered doing the whole thing cheaply in his hometown in Missouri, but the cost of putting his cast up and flying them out would definitely have been more than the LA permits.
A project like Turkey Bowl relies entirely on its writing and cast, and both hit it out of the park (mixing my sports metaphors there). The cast was made up entirely of Kyle’s friends and they all essentially play themselves but they each bring so much to their role that all of them seem perfectly defined and well-rounded. Their performances make you want to hang out with them and get to know them. As one person in the Q&A asked, “When’s the next game, and can I join in?”
The movie ended up only 65 minutes long, which is probably why it hasn’t gotten into as many festivals as it should. Kyle’s script was 110 pages and the movie at one point was 75 minutes, but as Kyle says it wasn’t any good. He trimmed it down to make it the best it could be. Turns out they got a VOD distribution deal out of SXSW. So, the lesson? Make the best movie you can and things should work out.
So, congratulations to Kyle and his crew and cast for making a film that feels so simple, yet succeeds wildly.
         In the Medieval and Renaissance periods artists were rarely given free reign on expression. The church commissioned their work and there were strict parameters on what they could paint/sculpt and how they were to depict it. But no one ever thinks of the artists from that period as being suppressed. The great artists were able to do amazingly brilliant and unique things within the extreme parameters placed on them. One of the interesting things about no-budget filmmaking is how it forces us to be creative and expressive within a very narrow field, but great filmmakers are able to do extraordinary things within extreme restrictions.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

No budget example: SURROGATE VALENTINE

Surrogate Valentine Trailer HD from goh nakamura on Vimeo.

Dave Boyle's film Surrogate Valentine is a good example of "no budget" filmmaking. Though we never like to disclose actual budget amounts, Dave is fond of saying it cost less than buying a car (certainly not my car, but more on that later). Surrogate Valentine started in two ways, first) when Dave and singer/songwriter Goh Nakamura met at the premiere of our film White on Rice and Dave started to have this weird impression that Goh could carry a feature film by himself, and two) as Dave and I started talking about wanting to make a movie with a budget that was low enough that a substantial part of its cost could be made back by selling DVDs at festival screenings (more on that in a later post as well).

Once the financing was more or less in place we started to think about what type of movie we could make on such a small scale. Dave's plan was actually quite ambitious: a road movie. Instead of spending the entire movie indoors in just a few locations, we went on the road and shot over fifteen days in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. While this seems like an unlikely decision it actually gave the film an epic quality and an increased production value.

Dave and our cinematographer Bill Otto decided to keep the movie black and white for multiple artistic reasons, but also because it would make shooting quicker to not have to worry about color temperatures or wardrobe colors etc.

We kept everything either an interior or exterior day to facilitate quick lighting set ups. Even though it messes with the story a bit we changed nights to days without sweating that it didn't really make sense. In one sequence Goh is asked what he's doing that night, he says he's playing a show. After the show there are several dialogue scenes out side, all of them in daylight, like we're in the Alaskan winter or something, but no one has ever complained about it.

All driving dialogue we did at night to take advantage of DP Bill Otto's mad poor man process skills (making it look like you're driving at night, but you're actually sitting in a garage). We had all hands on decks waving HMIs at random times, or waving pen lights to look like headlights behind the car. This was a very hard day on the actors, who had to sit in an un-air conditioned car, in an un-air conditioned studio in the middle of July for twelve hours.

DP Bill Otto makes poor man process magic -- note the coffee cup at his feet. Bill hates Duane's poor man coffee.

Finally our post production came in for so low because so many people on our team know how to use all of Apple's desktop applications. It would be hard to pull off a low budget project like Surrogate Valentine if we expected to pay someone to handle all of our post needs. We only paid for some sound sweetening, some simple visual effects, and to print the final version on HDCam.

Surrogate Valentine premiered at SXSW, won an audience award at SFIAAFF, and a special jury prize for Goh's acting at DIFF. Look for it at a film festival near you.

Surrogate Valentine from goh nakamura on Vimeo.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

It all starts with the script

I keep starting and stopping this entry. I've decided it needs to be a work in continual progress. If you're making a No-Budget film, there are certain things that you just can't have, and certain things you should have. These apply mostly to projects in the 40k range and under, but are useful for larger things as well. (I will continually add to this, feel free to add your own in the comments section).

• You must have only a limited amount of speaking roles.
• You must have limited supporting/day players.
• You must only have locations that you know you have access to (in other words, don't write a scene in a restaurant if you don't have a friend who will let you shoot in their restaurant). in other words, DON'T JUST WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW, BUT WRITE WHAT YOU HAVE!
• You should film mostly only interiors and daylight exteriors. Even night interiors will be hard, day interiors and day exteriors will always look the best.
• Sadly you cannot have explosions (as one friend of mine said: What's the point of making a movie if you can't blow something up), stunts, car chases, etc.
• You should shoot for only around 15 days, and should have a script length of only about 75 pages.
• Part of your budget should be set aside for a good sound person. Don't think a grunge looking film can get by with grunge sound.
• Script must (as always) be top notch.
• If you can use SAG's ultra low budget contract and hire the most professional actors you can, but remember the added costs: agents, Pension & Health, payroll and (if they're traveling) air-fare, luggage, hotel and per diem. It's will always be hard to add an actor that you don't know or audition to your project. If you approach someone who isn't a friend it is unlikely that their People will not get "the Spirit"of the thing, and will try to negotiate more than what you can afford.
• Plan on a crew of Producer, Director, DP, sound, camera assistant, make-up artist.
• I only use a makeup artist when I have female actors on set.
• Have a story that somehow appeals to a niche audience to take advantage of specialty film festivals.
• Film during the summer to take advantage of film students who can work for free.
• Make a movie for a budget that you can make back solely through grass roots sales -- don't plan on anyone buying it.
• Make your scenes short. If your scenes are about half a page long then they're really easy to grab while stealing a location, or in between noisy sounds, etc. If they're much longer you have to do a lot more holding for sound, and it's harder to run in and steal things.

(more to come)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Today's Tip: Signatory

With SAGindie projects you do not become a permanent signatory. Some people worry that if they do one SAG project it means everything they do from there out will have to be a SAG project. This isn't true. So if you make a SAG project, it doesn't mean you'll be required to use only SAG performers in every little webisode, infomercial, or home movie you shoot afterward.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What IS Low Budget?

            Every year the Oscars seem to select one “Low Budget” movie as its flavor of the month. When Brokeback Mountain was all the rage no one would stop referring to it as a “Low Budget Movie.” Oh, wow, they made it for such a low budget. Everyone took super low salaries so they could work on it. On and on and on. Well Brokeback Mountain cost $14 million dollars to make. The Hurt Locker was ten million. Little Miss Sunshine was $8 million. Even Winter’s Bone was $2 million (which gives you an idea how independent film is trending).
Low, Ultra-Low, No are budget categories loosely based on the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG) various contracts for independent film.
            SAG’s independent arm (SAGindie) has three levels: Low budget (for films with a total budget of under $2 million and above $650,000); Low Budget Modified (for films between $200,000 and $650,000) and Ultra-Low Budget (for films under $200,000). I have produced two Low Budget Modified films, one Ultra Low Budget film and currently have two additional ULB films in preproduction. I also produced a feature under SAG’s previous Ultra Low Budget style contract which at that point was called their “Experimental Contract.”
            I want to give a huge shout-out to SAG for creating SAGindie and these three contracts. It is a testament to both the way the world of independent film is changing and how SAG is providing the best opportunities for their members. Prior to these contracts no SAG performer could work on any project that wasn’t fully SAG, with a minimum scale of $750 a day per performer. Back then I made a short, and a SAG actor was desperate to get the lead. I would have given it to him, if SAG had allowed me. But there was no way I could pay him, and he wouldn’t work behind their backs. 
            No-Budget is not an official term by any recognized union or guild but should be taken fairly literally. A production budget of $15,000 or less is essentially No Budget, but others are making very credible films with even less than that. In this blog I will talk a lot about making films at this level. Though there are clearly disadvantages to working so low, there are also definite advantages.
            A filmmaker friend of mine recently was laughing about someone trying to raise $2 million for their film. He said, “They’re never gonna get it. I would be more confident if they said they were going to make it for $200.” I agreed. If you plan on making it for only $200, I’m not sure you can actually make the movie, but I’m sure you can at least raise the money. There has never been a time when raising money for films has been easy. Our current economy makes it nearly impossible. Instead of just waiting for the money to fall out of the sky, however, savvy filmmakers are now making films for what most people just a few years ago would have said are impossible numbers, and creating business plans and strategies that ensure their Return of Investment.
            Remember: You’re not a filmmaker if you’re not making films. You’re not a film producer if you’re not producing films. I would rather make five $50,000 films a year than one $5,000,000 film every five years.

Updated rates: In 2015 SAG raised the rates of the SAGIndie contracts to: Ultra Low Budget: $125 (for budgets from 0-250k); Low Budget Modified: $335 daily or $1,166 weekly (for budgets from 250k-700k); Low Budget $630 daily or $2,190 weekly (for budgets from 700k-2.5 mil). 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Collaborative Life is the Good Life

In this blog I plan on going through the critical aspects of making low budget movies (like writing a script to fit a budget, locations for cheap, casting, increasing production value, the crews you can afford, SAG and IATSE on super low budgets, post-production, etc). I hope this never turns into a vanity site, but just is practical, helpful, somewhat readable. I also intend to discuss business models that suit today’s independent film market realities, distribution options and pitfalls, etc. Again, hoping it comes off interesting and helpful.
Before I begin, however, I’d like to cover two things: collaboration and what a producer is. For today: Collaboration.
I feel that the first step to success in filmmaking (at every level) is to surround yourself with talented people. I am very fortunate to be surrounded by people who are not only talented, but extremely talented. It is also important that you surround yourself with people who aren’t, well, jerks (another word comes to mind, but I choose to practice discretion in public). I find that jerks are not fairly common in this industry, despite the stereotype. Maybe I just never meet them. I certainly can’t offer much to the typical Hollywood sleazeball, so why would he bother showing himself to me? Anyway…
    Probably my favorite thing about working in film is working with amazingly talented, creative, passionate people everyday.
So, lesson for today:  find a community. Reach out to others. Make new friends. Don’t look for people who will be “yes people," but people who will challenge you, force you to learn. If someone is doing work you admire, tell them. Tell them you hope to work with them sometime. I do this and am amazed at how quickly it gets things moving.
I started young. In second grade I saw our school’s production of The Sound of Music. It was the first theatrical performance I ever saw. I was pretty much blown away. I was impressed with one of the Von Trapp family boys who was my age. I mean, this kid was in this play with all these big six graders! The next day on the playground I walked up to him and said, “Hi, can we be friends?” And we were, and are still. Josiah Polhemus is still acting and turns in great supporting performances in two of my movies, White on Rice and Surrogate Valentine. Later this year he’ll be starring in my directorial debut, Superpowerless.
Make networking about enriching your life. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Fade In: Yet Another Blog

This is my first attempt at writing a blog. Recently I have been invited to give a workshop on "Independent Filmmaking in a New Economy" at a fairly large film festival. Invited is perhaps too strong of a word – we pitched the workshop as a way to get my flight paid for so I could attend the festival where Surrogate Valentine, a film I produced, will be playing. The nice people at the festival agreed, will be paying for my flight (though I must sleep on the floor of the director’s hotel – nothing new there), and expect me to give a workshop. Which is great. Except, I’ve never given a workshop on filmmaking. I’ve never taken a class on filmmaking. I’m not exactly sure where to begin.
            I have produced a few features now and have several in the works. All of these have gotten out there a bit (played at festivals, have had various distribution successes). I know about some things that I didn’t know about before I started producing. I can talk about those things because I’ve learned about them from experience. I just have to figure out a way to organize them so they’re the most helpful.
            There are a lot of great websites out there that talk extensively about independent film (I'll try to promote them often in this blog). As I search online, however, for articles about low-budget independent film production most of it seems pretty impractical. A lot of it is more than a few years old, so essentially out-of-date. A lot is vanity stuff that seems to be about promoting projects themselves (which, I must say, isn’t ever a bad idea). Most are about Robert Rodriguez and how you can become like him. Personally, I don’t think you can. Rodriguez was a product of his era. We are in a different era and today’s independent filmmakers have to expect different results.
            I’m gonna try to write about those results and how to go about them as a way to prepare for this upcoming workshop. Hopefully it will help me collect my thoughts. Hopefully someone might read it and it might be helpful… or at lease it will help me collect my thoughts. Hopefully.
            I’ll call the blog “Low, Ultra Low, and No.” These are the budget parameters I’m most familiar with, the ones that most filmmakers start out at, and all I'm really qualified to muse publicly about.