Saturday, June 25, 2011

Ultra Low in LA: JUST PRETEND wrapped

Our project Just Pretend has wrapped. We had very few bumps along the road and I am hoping our efforts will turn out a very good movie. We had an amazingly hard working crew that was cheerful and happy (for the most part), and it was a pleasure to work with Eric Levy, Juan Cardarelli, Abby Miller, Brian Dietzen and the rest of the creative team. What's next?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A film investor's insight and thoughts on business plans

Gary Chou was the principal financier of my movie Surrogate Valentine. The most common thing people ask me about is how to raise money for films. In his insightful blog Gary mentions the reasons he invested in Surrogate Valentine:

  • He was already a fan of the principal participant, Goh Nakamura.
  • He felt the team of Goh and director Dave Boyle seemed like the foundation of a tech startup, something he was familiar with.
  • Both Dave and Goh had a track record that proved they would find a way to succeed.
  • They were going to find a way to make the movie with or without his investment (they didn't come off desperate, but were presenting him an opportunity to be involved).
  • They both wore multiple hats (meaning that both Dave and Goh have skills and knowledge that enable them to propel their project toward success, without relying on others to solve problems for them).
  • And finally: "There was a clear energy between them where you knew the level of awesome was more than the sum of the parts."
Gary's post is good to read as you seek investment because it's helpful to consider how you appear to your potential investor. One of the important aspects of Surrogate Valentine was the business model that Gary alludes to. By keeping our budget low we proposed a way to make Return on Investment through our own grassroots efforts. It is important that your proposed business plan actually includes a plan. I recently read a book that stated that any business plan that relies on someone coming in and buying the product (and making "all our dreams come true") is NOT an acceptable business model. Almost all business plans for film projects rely entirely on exactly this. The business plan is essentially making the movie and hoping that someone buys it. HOPE IS NOT A STRATEGY. Of course, when you're making a film for hundreds of thousands of dollars, you'd better hope that something global is going to happen (and if you're expecting someone to give you that kind of money you had better be in a position to implement global activity)... if you're making it for significantly less than $100,000 then you can develop non-traditional strategies that make economic sense.

Surrogate Valentine presented a plan that we are currently implementing. At no point did we intend to offer the film up for sales. We didn't have a sales agent going into SXSW. We knew that ours was not the kind of film that companies look for. We also knew that anyone who did show interest would probably not do any better at getting it out there than we could do ourselves. If someone came with a big offer, that would be great, but our business plan never relied on it. Instead our strategy includes DVD sales at festival screenings, a small theatrical release, followed by VOD. The theatrical and VOD release were all coordinated by ourselves (Dave really) based on contacts established during our previous projects.

For his part Gary Chou has been a dream-come-true-Executive-Producer who has gone out of his way to support and promote the project. As a social networking tech VC guy he's done his share to get the word out. It's great to be able to work with so many amazing folks with such an array of skills.

You can support our efforts by buying it from Amazon, or putting it in your Netflix cue.

Surrogate Valentine: Behind the Scenes from goh nakamura on Vimeo.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A report on unwanted sound in Los Angeles

I have continually said that if you want to shoot low budget you should try and shoot as much Day Exterior as possible. This is generally good advice, but some exteriors are louder than others. Here in Los Angeles, winding down on production for JUST PRETEND, there are extensive unwanted noises. While most neighbors are genuinely amiable and willing to turn of mowers, blowers, music, etc, some sound is just beyond your control. Here is a list of sounds that we've had to hold for:

• Helicopters (they're everywhere here in LA, but today shooting in North Hollywood there is a helicopter that has been making a wide circle around us all afternoon).
• Mowers and blowers. When filming in upscale neighborhoods this is a very common issue. Fortunately the gardeners are super fast and generally willing to wait a few minutes while you're rolling (being able to speak Spanish is extra helpful in negotiating this).
• Masonry (we had a house with a major masonry, plumbing project going on while we were filming nearby. This one we just had to accept. The house had broken its water line so the owner wasn't particularly happy to have his workers wait around for us).
• Airplanes (Here in North Hollywood, we're right by the Burbank Airport, but fortunately the house is pretty sound proof. In Pasadena we were on a super quiet street, but there was a constant parade of small aircraft flying over us. We were filming outside on Memorial Day and had to deal with Jet Flyovers and WWII era aircraft flying over us in formation).
• Music (neighbors stereos, etc)
• Party (last night a major party with a DJ and everything started a few houses behind us, just as we were getting close to finishing).
• A dude parking his boat (these guys took forever to park this massive boat, right where we were shooting).
• Street cleaners, dump trucks (fortunately they come and go).
• Parrots (that's right, parrots. In Pasadena a flock of green parrots landed in the trees above us. Apparently they are decsendents of escapees from a long since shuttered zoo in the area).
• Peacocks (don't know where they came from, but one day they showed up).
• Dogs barking (we had a neighbor trying to blow leaves off his roof, he kindly would turn off his blower while we were rolling, but then he'd just stand on his roof overlooking his neighbors house where his neighbor's dogs would bark nonstop at him. Some people just don't get it).
• Lula the dog (in our Pasadena home Lula the dog was with us for the nine days at the location. She was a very sweet, old Shepherd who would occasionally walk into the set while we were rolling, her long nails clicking on the hard wood floor).

Lula the Dog, set mascot

• A birthday party, complete with piñata (the party itself was no big deal, but when they started whacking on the piñata...)
• A house on fire complete with three fire trucks, two ambulances and a police car (the fire was apparently minimal but they opened up hydrants and everything. The amazing thing is that once they all arrived, they were extremely quiet, and even though they were running around doing their thing, we could do our shot without hearing them.
• Trains, yes in North Hollywood, when the air clears of airplanes, that's when you hear the trains.
• Perhaps strangest of all: A Submarine. Turned out to be an ice cream truck that instead of playing music plays a single sonar pulse like a submarine.
• Finally Kansas' CARRY ON MY WAYWARD SON, which happens to be my ringtone. Hold for the producer's phone. Very embarrassing.

I still think that for the super low budget filmmaker shooting exterior day is a lot better than anything where you have to wrangle a bunch of lights, but be prepared for sound issues. I find shooting in busy urban areas are even better than quiet suburban ones, because at least the sound is constant. One trick is that if you're filming near an airport, mention that you're near the airport (or train, freeway, turkey farm, whatever), so that the noise has a purpose. Make it a part of your story. The other good way to work around it is to make your scenes very short. That way you're not dealing with long scenes and takes that might get messed up.

WWII era planes interrupt our film shoot from Duane Andersen on Vimeo.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Attaching talent to your small budget film

Everyone tries to attach name actors to their project as they raise money with the expectation that the presence of known stars will make the funding easier. I believe that expectation is valid. Most investors would be more inclined to part with their life savings for a project with a marketable actor attached. Foreign distribution companies still pay money up front for projects with noted talent connected. Having a name attached to a project is a huge step in seeing your film made.

Here's a few thoughts on this process:

1) Everyone wants to attach talent, but agents WILL NOT look at scripts that aren't funded. Why would they? If Joe Hollywood receives five offers a day with real money attached, why would he bother reading your script with only the possibility of money attached? Why would an agent, who's goal is to make money and feed their family, spend time with a script that doesn't have a guarantee of actual income? Even when you make a real offer with a funded project the agency will normally string you along for as long as they can just in case something better comes along. This is why it's generally better to make an offer as close to production as possible. Make it a few months out, and you might lose the talent you want anyway.

2) What is an Offer? An Offer is a job with real money and real dates. Be careful when you approach an agent hoping to attach Joe Hollywood to a project that you don't actually make an offer. If you suggest an actual payment value, you are crossing the line into "Offerdom." We'd like Joe Hollywood to star in our film, we'll pay him $100,000 can be interpreted as an Offer. Once an Offer is made, and accepted, you are obligated to pay the performer, whether you make the movie or not. An Offer locks you into a Pay or Play agreement. So if you make an offer, then never raise the funds, the agent can demand payment. I don't think many agents would if your intentions are good, but it's not worth the risk. Most agents will ask, Is this an Offer? This means, do you have money to back it up and are you willing to enter into this agreement? I have a friend who Offered a lead role to an actor, then the opportunity to hire a bigger name came along. They fired the first actor to hire the bigger one. The agency insisted on payment. They ended up casting the first actor in a smaller role, but still had to pay him the total offered for the lead role.

3) How do you attach talent? Is this your first feature? Are you shooting for under a million? Are you a regular indie film person with no industry contacts? If you've answered yes to any of these, you DON'T. Write a movie that has great parts for talented actors. Raise your money, then approach appropriate talent. Actors love to work, so if you have a project and can pay, you will have a lot of people to choose from for your film... but until you have the money, you're not legit.

4) The best way to attach talent is to be friends with talent, or people who know talent. To get in through the back door, so to speak. But it's unlikely anyone of consequence is going to want to risk working with you until you've proven yourself. So make a no-budget feature and get into some film festivals, so you have some laurels to lean on. As a producer, it became so much easier to talk to agents once I could say, "I produced a movie called White on Rice," which agents know simply because it had a theatrical release. Also, having connection to an agency is helpful. If you can be signed by an agent yourself, you have a pool of talent resources within that agency that you can go to.

5) On some projects I see people attach below the line (non-talent) people, like cinematographers, etc. This doesn't make sense unless it's some kind of legend or Oscar winner (or simply part of your usual team). Some people feel that "crewing up" at the development stage makes you look more like a real movie, I think it makes you look amateurish. It's not hard to call a composer, cinematographer, editor and ask if they'll work for you if you raise the money. Film professionals work for a living. They'll say yes to any job that promises to pay. Focus on raising the money, then work out the details.