Wednesday, September 18, 2013

How to be a great production assistant

You've been hired as a Production Assistant (or more likely you've volunteered your services). Great. Welcome to the wonderful, grueling, demanding world that is the bottom-of-the-ladder on a film set. You will learn a lot. You will meet some awesome people. You will work very, very hard.

I've often said that some people show up on set their first day and just seem to get it. Instinctively they seem to know what needs to get done, and the best way to do it. They are immediately wanted by every department to be part of their team, and are hired back again and again. Others, just don't seem to have a clue. They are in the way, they have to be explained things over and over. The production moves slower because they are involved. I was one of the latter. I just didn't get it. In fact I had to stop doing movies, and come back making my own in order to learn what was needed, and WHY it was needed. I had to view things from the top down to get it.

I've often wondered what the difference between these two types are, and while I think it's mostly innate, there are a few philosophies you can espouse that will help you.

1) Remember, you are not there to be creative. That is not your function EVER. You are there to serve the creative people who have been hired to be creative. It's not that you're not creative, or that people don't think you are. It's just not your job to be creative... yet. When telling this to someone recently, he asked if he made just one suggestion a day, would it be out of line (he meant to the director on our super micro set)? I said one suggestion a month would be out of line. You think that your director, who has directed five feature films, is going to want to be given ideas from some kid on his very first shoot? Don't ever, EVER think of yourself as a creative.

Yet there will be important ways to be creative: How to creatively get six coffee cups in a container that holds four; how to get your car from point A to point B the fastest without getting a ticket; how to get pedestrians to walk around the set in a way that won't make them upset or disrupt the crew. These are your creative concerns. If you do your job creatively you'll be well liked, if you try to suggest thoughts or opinions about what the Creative team is doing you will be fired.

2) You are there to WORK. Don't ever forget that your job is to kick butt. Don't ever feel like you're being ill used for being told to work... even if the work seems pointless. Don't ever allow yourself to be standing around with no purpose. A lot of times you will find yourself with nothing to do. Do something. Ask someone if you can help them. Ask people if they need anything. Bring your immediate supervisor a water. Pick up garbage in the street. Get a wet-wipe and clean cables. NEVER stand and watch. When you're told to hold up pedestrians, face the directions the pedestrians are coming, don't face the production. You will not see someone coming and they will slip past you. Do YOUR job well.

3) Some crews require PAs to be standing up always. I don't make that a requirement. BUT if I see a PA sitting I wonder why they're sitting. Don't sit. Stand. Expect to stand for 12 hours. If your AD or Production Manager says you can sit while doing something, then you can do it. If you don't like that, get a job in post (you'll be dying to stand).

4) Don't worry that you don't know what a Half Apple or a C-47 are. You'll learn. Tell people, this is my first movie, so I don't know what that means. Once you are told, NEVER forget. You don't want to have to be told twice. Be sure to ask questions, to the people that you are working with directly. Buy the book STRIKE THE BABY AND KILL THE BLONDE, an imperfect reference book of film terms. It will get you started. When I was on my first shoot the DP told me to "86 that rug." I sat there blinking, trying with all my might to figure out what 86 means. He simply said, "It means move it." I quickly moved it saying, "Sorry, first movie." No worries. I never had to be told what it meant again.

5) You will work 12-16 hour days. Expect it. Anything less is a gift. Don't check your watch and let it eat you up. Don't tell your friends you'll meet them at 8, then worry about having to cancel. Just face the fact you will have no family or social life during the duration of the production. If you have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, you might want to just break up before a long shoot. You might meet someone on set anyway. A great movie to watch for many reasons is Truffaut's Day For Night. There's a great line it: I would leave a boy for a movie, but I'd never leave a movie for a boy.

Follow these simple directions and you should do fine. You may not have the innate skill that some of the Naturals have, but you should make it through without getting fired, and may even be asked to come back again.

One of the naturals I've had the pleasure to work with was Drew Sugimoto. Drew showed up to work for free on the set of our film Surrogate Valentine in 2010, invited by his friend and fellow PA Minore Nishime. Drew only worked a few days, but he was clearly a smart guy and a hard worker, and someone I wanted to keep hanging out with.

Drew Sugimoto (left), lead actor of Surrogate Valentine Goh Nakamura (center),  Minore Nishime (right) in  2010
Drew Sugimoto (left), lead actor of Surrogate Valentine Goh Nakamura (center),  Minore Nishime (right) in  2010
Three years, and six films later, in three different states, I'm still hiring him whenever I can - for more and more challenging duties.  So what can you learn from Drew? Work hard and be a good person, and you'll be the sort of person people want to have back.

On the set of An Honest Liar, Drew Sugimoto (left), Bill Nye the Science Guy (center), Duane Andersen (right)
On the set of An Honest Liar, Drew Sugimoto (left), Bill Nye the Science Guy (center), Duane Andersen (right) in 2013

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Jennifer Lawrence doesn't want to be in your movie (a post worth sharing)

Jennifer Lawrence Does Not Want To Be In Your Movie: Lessons Learned Casting Our Microbudget Feature

By Scott K. Foley and Josh Rosenberg
Maya and DP Joe Fitz
When we set out to cast our microbudget feature, Jessica, we were certain we’d be able to quickly find an up-and-coming actress to star. I mean we’d written a script about a complicated and conflicted character, the kind of breakout-caliber role that actors dream about, and one that with a bit of luck would propel their careers, all of our careers, to the next level. What we didn’t know was how, as first time and microbudget filmmakers, we’d be expending an enormous amount of time and energy trying to get past the gatekeepers and how some much appreciated tough-love advice from an unexpected source would finally allow us to move forward and start making our movie.
Our journey started by making a list of actors we were interested in. We worked hard to remain realistic, and so we set our targets on people who had impressed us in smaller supporting roles. People who might be looking to advance to leading-lady status and who could help provide our little indie with some much needed name recognition. We quickly signed up for IMDBPro, where for less than $20 a month we knew we could get contact information for the agents and managers of all the actors on our list. How amazing is that!
Okay, we’ll be honest; those first few calls were terrifying. These were REAL agents of REAL actors, and we were, well, struggling filmmakers. “But,” we rationalized, “surely they would recognize this as an amazing opportunity for their clients, right?” Wrong. Instead of a series of hard-won yesses, we were quickly met with questions like, “What are your dates?” “Does filming have to be in Chicago?” and “What’s the rate?”
One thing we rarely heard was no. Instead we were asked to submit the script with a written offer, an offer that, if the actor liked the material, meant we’d be attaching her without an audition or even having had spoken. So we submitted, one by one, down our list. And one by one, the offers expired. We always followed up, but what we quickly learned was that NOT hearing no, still most often meant NO.
Frustrated, we began thinking we’d made a mistake in not hiring a casting agent, so we asked ourselves what was the best cast independent film in the last few years. Our answer, Martha Marcy May Marlene. Bound and determined to get whoever cast that film to cast ours, we reached out to casting director Susan Shopmaker. Susan warned us up front that our budget was too low for her company, but somehow we managed to convince her to read the script, and shortly thereafter received an email that read simply, “You were right. A very well written script. Let’s talk soon.”
You can’t imagine our excitement. We anticipated her saying, “I want to cast your movie, and I have the next Elizabeth Olsen for you. Let’s do this!” In case you’re wondering, that’s not how the conversation went. Instead Susan was honest – painfully honest. She told us that as untested filmmakers it was going to be very difficult for us to get the script past an agent’s desk, especially at our microbudget rates. She also told us we were still aiming too high, that we were targeting working actors who had carved out nice careers for themselves. Lastly she told us that our lead actress would not be the reason someone would come see our movie. People would come see it because we’d made a great movie. This was a real light bulb moment that allowed us to stop looking at casting as a way to ensure the success of our film, and to refocus our attention on making the best film possible.
Susan suggested we reach out to local casting agents, so the next day we contacted Chicago based, Paskal Rudnicke Casting (Public Enemies, The Break-Up, etc.). We found that the staff there was not only happy to work with us but also happy to show us the wealth of talent that existed right under our noses. We saw 50 talented, passionate, hungry, actresses for the lead role. They each came in with a unique take on the character, showing us things we hadn’t thought of, challenging us to answer some tough questions, and bringing the character to life for us for the very first time!
From that session we cast an amazing local actress who was even willing to let us shoot a teaser trailer with her for our Kickstarter campaign. The video can be checked out here: The campaign has done really well so far, but we’ve still got a ways to go, and it ends at 7pm (CST) on July 18th! We’d be very grateful if you’d be willing to take a look and consider supporting our campaign.
  • Jennifer Lawrence Doesn’t Want to Be in Your Microbudget Movie: To be honest we never thought she did. But who was Jennifer Lawrence before Winter’s Bone? A super-talented actor hungry to find a great role. So although Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t want to be in your movie, the next Jennifer Lawrence just might.
  • The Importance of Casting Directors: These are people who have been doing this for years. They have connections to agents, to talent, and they know their way around all the rules and regulations that you might not. They’ll save you time and frustration.
  • Whenever Possible Call Managers, Not Agents: Within 30 seconds an agent will ask about money. This is not the direction you want the call to go. But managers often ask you what the project’s about. Who knows, you might be offering exactly the type of thing that actor is looking for.
  • You Don’t Have to be in New York or L.A. to Find Talented Actors: Most cities have a pool of talented actors, chomping at the bit to find a juicy role. Check with your local casting directors; they can help you connect.
  • Build Relationships: Everyone who agrees to read your script represents an opportunity to become part of a larger network of people who are actively making movies. As a young filmmaker, it’s incredibly important to foster these relationships. The best way to do that is by always being respectful and genuine and trying to give back in any way that you can. Remember these people gave you the time of day when very few people would.
Jessica Kickstarter:
Twitter @FoldedRose
Scott K. Foley and Josh Rosenberg have over a dozen years of experience in film and television production. They have completed projects with ABC, Discovery, TLC, Comedy Central, Oprah Winfrey Network and A&E, to name a few. Not only skilled filmmakers, Scott and Josh are also producers as well. In 2008 Scott line-produced a scripted television pilot for Spike TV, and Josh currently works in production management at Harpo Studios in Chicago.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Advice for film actors: How to either be despised or adored by your crew

You've been cast in a film! Congratulations! It's taken a lot to get this far... and yet, there's always more.

Film crews love actors. We look forward to working with them and are always quick to give them the benefit of the doubt. We are happy to give you space to prepare and to make sure that everything is just right, so you can focus on your job. After all, the reason we got into movies in the first place was to work with great actors, not so much just to move lights around. A cinematographer friend says, "Great cinematography is 80% about performance." In other words, even if it's a bit out of focus and bumpy, great acting can often make up for it.

That said, however, there are certain things that performers do that can really drive a film crew nuts. I tend to see these things enough that I figure maybe actors just don't realize the affect it has on crews. To all those actors I've worked with in the past who think this post is about them, don't worry about it. Everyone has bad days. Hopefully this post will make your up coming shoot an even better experience.

How to be despised by your crew

Team Player. First remember that you are part of the team. Everyone on that team is working toward the same goal, and that goal is to make a good movie, in the least amount of time as possible.

Ticking Clock. Every movie you watch is more exciting when a "ticking clock" is introduced (a time-bomb strapped to the bottom of the bus which will go off in ten minutes, or whatever). Well, film crews are always working against a ticking clock. The most critical thing for a film crew is speed and making their day (combined with quality and safety). This means that the worst things a crew member can do is hold up production (not have a prop ready when it's needed, show up late with key equipment, take too long building a rig, etc), AND the quickest way an actor can make her crew not like her is to slow down production.

Not Prepared. The biggest mistake an actor can make is to not come prepared. When an actor shows up on set and doesn't have her lines memorized, she will become an immediate antagonist to the crew. This doesn't mean someone can't slip up every now and then, or struggle over some sections, that's no big deal. But the crew will know immediately when an actor just flat out hasn't taken the time to prepare to learn their lines (they've seen it too many times before). You have to understand, in most cases the crew has already been working several weeks, twelve to sixteen hours a day, before you've arrived. They know their job, and it's physically demanding, and if they don't do it right, they're let go. Then imagine their feelings as an actor comes in and is cavalier and unprepared and slows down production as the script supervisor is constantly feeding her the lines. It's insulting. Come prepared. Know your lines.

Performing for Crew. Another thing that will make you unpopular is to continue performing after "Cut" is called. You may be a great improv artist and may have the crew in stitches during your take and when the director calls "Cut" the whole room bursts into a laugh that they have painfully been holding in. Great. Some actors, however, feel they now have a captive audience and keep their show going. Not great. Don't do it. In between "Action" and "Cut" you do your job, after "Cut" the crew does theirs. If you continue to perform, inevitably some grip, electrician or PA will stop what they're supposed to be doing and pay attention to you.  You're there to work, not to entertain. Instead, once "Cut" is called, be quiet and listen to what the director is saying, listen to what the DP is saying to her lighting team. You will need to know what adjustments the lights or camera are making. You may think that you're just talking among your fellow actors, but if you're talking, that means everyone working has to talk louder. (as an aside, worry about playing to the camera, not to the crew. My experience is that things that either make the crew laugh or make the crew cry seldom work in the final edit). Be a professional actor when the camera is rolling AND a professional actor when it stops.

Forget the Gag Reel. Don't try to make the blooper reel by laughing, swearing, or being silly during a take. I see this time and again. If you mess up, just start again, say, "Going again," and go for it. Hiroshi Watanabe, the lead actor in our film White on Rice, is a great example of the right way to do this. Though one of the funniest actors I ever worked with, I only saw him break character and laugh once during our entire 25 day shoot. That's because he wasn't performing to make people laugh, he was playing a character, and the humor came from the character. Hiroshi is a pro and was adored on set.

Hiroshi Watanabe and Justin Kwong in White on Rice: two pros.

Not there to hang out. You've come to work, be there to work. Being leisurely will not win you any friends. If you know you have a scene coming up, be on hand, ready to work. Don't be in the makeup trailer flirting with the makeup artist or hanging out at craft service. Generally your second AD will always have a place where they want you, make sure you're there. And if you need to slip away, be sure to ask permission. Remember you're part of the team, and the team has a goal. Don't feel like you're being bossed around by this and don't get freaked out when a PA follows you everywhere you go. That's their job. Help them do their job and don't wander off. The Marx Brothers were so notorious about wandering off (they'd wander all the way off the studio lot for a card game) that someone eventually made cages that they would lock them in.

• I won't even comment on actors who need to go into their trailer to pout and need to be ego stroked out. The resulting opinion of the crew should be obvious. Again, you're part of a team.

No one's complained so far? If you do any of the above things, you will probably never hear any complaints about it. That's because the crew is being careful to make you comfortable and happy, so that you can do your best when you're performing. You may never hear it, but it is being discussed.

When you're working do your best work. After I've said the above, don't be afraid to ask your director questions, or ask for another take, or ask to try it another way. Whatever your method of prep, don't worry about it... even if it requires some peculiarities. The crew will not be upset if you're passionate about your work and want the film to be as good as it can be, especially if you deliver the goods when it's time... however, there are limits. Don't be unreasonable. Also, if you need something, feel free to ask for it. Ask a PA to bring you water or coffee, so that you can stay where you're supposed to be, or stay focused on what you're supposed to do. It's what they're supposed to do and what they're there for.

Paid to wait. Also remember this: an actor friend, Jimmy Chunga, got to meet James Cameron and asked what advice he'd give an aspiring actor. Cameron said "You're not paid to act. You love acting, acting is fun, you'd do it for free. You're paid to wait." Good advice. Follow that and you will be on your way to being adored.

How to be adored by your crew

You are. First, know that you already are. The crew wants to adore you. The crew automatically hopes that all the actors are super cool. Very small gestures on your part, therefore, will guarantee your belovedness.

Equality. Treat the crew like equals. Many of them have been doing their jobs much longer than you.  Actress Amy Stewart surprised me by asking for a crew list as soon as she arrived on set. She kept it with her and would pull it out and ask people things like, "So you're Joe and you're the gaffer, right?" Within a few days she knew everyone's names. She'd arrive on set and say, "Hi Joe." Wow, what an impact that had. She was beloved.

Eat with the crew. Most of the time the cast bonds quickly and eats together, which is totally fine. If however, you sometimes sit and eat with the crew you'll be appreciated and admired... and obviously, the more successful you become, the truer this becomes.

Be generous. If you're heading over to the craft service table grab some things to bring around to the crew. Ask people if they want a water bottle, a soda, or a carrot stick. Actors do have to wait around on a film set a lot. Take a moment to help the crew out (just don't get in their way if they're moving stuff). It's easy and goes a long way. One of the best actors I have ever worked with was the incomparable Debra Jo Rupp. One day, on our very low budget shoot, she treated everyone to a Starbucks run. Took orders and sent a PA off with her credit card. Just did it to be nice. Just made herself beloved, is what she did. Notice how there are chairs for actors to sit in, but not for the crew, that you are always brought through the lunch line first, etc. Film crews do all we can to make sure you're comfortable... you have a hard job, and have to really mine your emotions and be very vulnerable, and we respect that. If you just show us a nod back, it goes a long way. (Note that while you might feel it's good to insist that crew people go through lunch lines before you, or that they sit down instead of you, remember that many people are simply not allowed to do it. If you coax a PA into a chair, it might be the last time you see that PA on set).

Debra Jo Rupp and Abby Miller in Congratulations, adored.
Know your trade. You're a professional film actor. No one expects someone in their first movie to be a total pro, but work at learning to hit your mark every time, knowing when you're in the light or have stepped out of it, knowing when someone is blocking you from camera, knowing about eye-lines, crossing lines, and stepping on lines. Know what you're not supposed to touch. Also, know about the tools your crew is working with. Get familiar with lenses, cameras, lights, etc. That way when your single is being shot on an 85 you naturally have a sense of your framing. You're working with a team of professionals, be one and be adored.

Be low maintenance. Understand the type of film you're working on. I've been on small shoots where actors showed up requesting specially made breakfasts each morning (when breakfast is bagels and fruit, don't ask for a tofu scramble and strawberry smoothie). On the other hand, on a recent shoot I was on, one actor showed up with his own chair. He didn't make a big deal about it, didn't care if others sat in it or anything, he just didn't want production to have to worry about him, so every day he pulled his chair out of his car and set it up and brought it home with him at night. Now that's low maintenance, folks.

Hang with the boys. Finally, every so often, if you hear the crew is doing something after wrap, show up. On Last Kind Words (shot in the backwoods of Kentucky) iconic actor Brad Dourif showed up one night for barbecue and moonshine (it was a dry county) at the crew motel. He hung out for a few hours regaling the crew with stories about working with Werner Herzog, David Lynch, John Huston and Peter Jackson. I'm sure it didn't hurt Brad's ego, and it certainly increased his legend status with our young crew. Normally it's just heading over to the local pub for a beer or something... go for it, you will be adored and coming to work with people who adore you is really more than anyone could hope for.

So, I suppose this whole post begs the question "Do you have to be adored by your crew?" I don't know. Maybe not. Maybe it's just as well to show up, work hard, do your job and leave. Certainly if you do this you will be respected. The other question would be, "Is it so wrong to be despised?" I would say yes, because by creating tension on set you're damaging the morale and working condition of those around you. So, you don't have to be adored, but it's best to not be despised.

Now go emote.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Insurance tips for ultra-low budget and micro budget independent films.

When I've shot micro/no-budget I have often flown without any insurance at all. I can't recommend this (I'm afraid I'd be sued). On these shoots our crew of five or six bring their own equipment, and all understand that we're all in it together. Fortunately I never had any serious issues on these small shoots. In fact, I had until recently gone twelve features without ever having to make an insurance claim. The streak is over, however, folks. Both of the last two features I've line produced have had to make insurance claims (one very large, and a smaller one). Based on these experiences here are some tips:

• Don't raise your deductible in order to keep your up-front costs low. If you don't have to file a claim you'll save money... but, if you do, you'll regret it. Maybe your budget is so low it's worth the gamble, but remember your coverage is per incident. So, if your deductible on rented equipment is $5,000, and you have a $4,000 repair on a camera, and a $4,000 repair on a mixer, then you've spent $8,000 and still haven't been able to use your insurance.

• Have any crew member who is bringing their own equipment fill out a rental agreement, where they list their equipment and its replacement cost (even if they're not charging you to use it). If that equipment is damaged, you could always go back and do it, but doing it up front saves time, and will give your crew a sense of being looked after. We had to do this for a number of things that were stolen on a project (on one of the above mentioned claims), but had to post-date each form. It would have been much simpler just to do it when everyone fills out their initial paperwork.

• Budget for claims. Get an insurance package with a $1,500 deductible (which is standard) and include $3,000 in your budget for a couple of insurance claims. You'll be glad you did if you have to file a claim, AND you'll be glad you did if you don't, because it will give you that much more padding.

• Realize that certain elements will increase the cost of your insurance, such as stunts, fights, use of weapons, falls, scenes near water, scenes in water, shots that involve the camera to be on a boat, animals, talent on horses, etc etc. Don't cheat. Let your broker know exactly what you'll be doing. You don't want to explain why you dropped the Red camera in the lake, when you didn't point out you'd be working around a lake... that's a good way to get your claim refused.

Brad Dourif threatens Spencer Daniels with a knife, and threatens to send
Last Kind Words' insurance through the roof.
Man From Reno crew with camera on a dock needed special insurance for working near water.
DP extraordinaire, Rich Wong, works the EZ Rig.
Guns and blanks add to insurance costs. Air Soft guns and Sharpees don't.
Jarrod Phillips and Tom Post in Inspired Guns.
• Expect to pay around $4,000 for a feature film without stunts, just as a general starting place. It can be more, and can be less.

• Be sure to insure yourself long enough before production so your crew can pick up equipment, and long enough after for them to return. If you've set up your insurance so it starts on your first day of production, no one will let anything out of the rental house... AND if you have to add a day or two on after you've already set up the policy, you'll find it a big additional expense that wouldn't have been there if you had given the correct time period at the beginning.

• A great option for micro-budgets: If you know someone who owns a production company that is insured yearly, you can enter into an agreement with them to be carried on their policy. You will sign an agreement with them that they are an official "Producer" on the project (though they may not have to have any official credit, other than a special thanks), and they become the administrators of the project, and all insurance goes through them. Be careful, however, that their coverage is sufficient for your needs. Most production companies don't have to rent a lot of equipment very often, so it's possible that their rental coverage isn't high enough for your needs.

• My preferred insurance company is Supple-Merrill and Driscoll ( They have excellent customer service and a great online system that allows you to issue insurance certificates at any time of day on your own. Just fill out the form and email a cert to whomever needs it. This is a huge benefit over other companies who require you to call or email the information and wait a day (a business day) until you have a certificate. I've been able to knock on someone's door and ask if we could film on their property, and email them a cert while we stood there speaking.

However, I am currently working with them on a major claim (my first). Once that is over and we see how smoothly the process went, I'll update.

UPDATE: The claim went great. There was a lot of paperwork, but everyone eventually got everything that was covered. Not only will I use them again, I have used them since.

I would not want to tell this man that the ride he brought to set wasn't insured.
Nano "Doc" Gonzalez on the set of Inspired Guns.
Good luck, and may you never need to file a claim.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Working with Flat Rates on SAG Ultra Low Budget

In an earlier blog, I talked about offering a higher scale to your principal actors if your shooting Ultra Low Budget, as a way to entice agencies to submit more experienced actors.

Once you do this, you can turn that into a flat rate and avoid having to deal with Over Time. SAG's Ultra Low contract is for $100 a day, BUT for an eight hour day. If an actor works 12 hours, with their four hours of OT, they are due $175. If you offer a performer the rate of SAG Low Budget Modified ($268 a day) OT will still be calculated at 8 hours as per your SAG contract. However, you can set up your performer on a flat rate. If she is working ten days, you can negotiate with her agent to set her up on a flat rate or "guarantee payment" of $2,680 (based on $268 a day for ten days). When calculating her daily rates your Payroll company (or yourself, if you're winging it) will still calculate her salary based on SAG scale ($100 for an eight hour day), plus overtime... meaning after ten days she will probably be paid around $1,750 if she's worked ten twelve hour days. On her final day you would give her the additional guaranteed amount ($930), for the total flat rate guarantee (the agent may prefer this amount up front, but it works the same way). If you do this, you're following SAG's Ultra Low Budget rules, and paying your performer your agreed amount. You must be sure to state this in your negotiation with your performer's agent however. If you tell them you are offering a guaranteed payment of $2680 based on ten days worked at $268 a day, they will understand.

Hollywood veteran Pepe Serna recently worked under a similar deal for Dave Boyle's
Man From Reno, which I had the pleasure to Line Produce.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Thoughts on creating Kickstarter success

Over the past couple of months I have been closely involved in two successful Kickstarter campaigns. Recently Kickstarter has become like blood to the independent filmmaker, and knowing how to run a good campaign seems about as important to a low budget film producer as knowing how to create a budget. In fact, I have multiple other projects in the works, all of which will require some support from Kickstarter. The problem is, you don't want to become a Network Marketing guy, alienating all your friends and family by begging for their support. Then again, for most of us, when someone has a cool project, we don't mind forking up $25 or $35 to help support it.

Facing East: The first project was for development money for a film that I've had in the works for a while, Facing East. We have some talent attached and need to complete our fundraising by the end of the year or else we'll lose that talent. We needed to raise $65,000 to pay for some rewrites and to finance our fundraising.

An Honest Liar: I'm co-producing a documentary called, An Honest Liar: The Amazing Randi Story, about magician and professional skeptic James Randi. It's being directed by my long time friend Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein. We needed to raise some Kickstarter money for post-production. As of this writing An Honest Liar still has a week to go and we're 125% funded. We were just named IndieWire's project of the month of January. An Honest Liar still has six days to go as of this moment... please make a contribution.

So, here are my thoughts:

• Kickstarter vs. Indie-Gogo: I definitely prefer Kickstarter for multiple reasons. Mainly, I like that it's all or nothing. Most people need the motivation that this provides. It helps them feel responsible for your success. It helps them participate in the goal. Facing East is also set up on Fractured Atlas, which is another great option. You need to be able to be not-for-profit in some way, but those who contribute gets a full tax deduction of their donation. Because there's no deadline, however, it's hard to motivate people the way Kickstarter does.

Your Goal: Knowing how much, or how little financing to ask for is critical, but also should really be based on what you realistically need. For Facing East we asked for $65,000, because it's what we needed, and it was a risky amount. While we felt fairly certain we could hit that mark, we only did thanks to the generosity of three amazing individuals who each contributed $10,000. If it weren't for them, we wouldn't have come close. As for An Honest Liar, $150,000 seemed like a huge amount, but we tore through that amount in under two weeks. If you reach your goal, the momentum dies pretty quickly. We could really use a lot more than $150k, so maybe we should've asked for 250k in the first place... but it's hard to know if such a high number is just a pipe-dream. Above everything, you HAVE to reach your goal! If you don't it would be hard to fund your project beyond a failed Kickstarter except with your own money.

The Hook: What makes people want to support your movie, is the same thing that will make audiences want to see your movie (and Buyers want to buy your movie). If it doesn't have a hook, or some kind of crowd appeal, you should rethink your project... or be sure to set your goal low enough that it can be reached without going viral beyond your family and friends.

Facing East is based on a well loved play by Carol Lynn Pearson that deals with Mormons and Gays. It's a very powerful play, and has special appeal to anyone who is or has gay loved ones who have had to come out in religious homes. Consequently there was a huge following of the play, and of the film in its development state. We were able to tap into that market, and several organizations (Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons and Mormons Building Bridges) supported it. Our director is also a popular Broadway actor with a devoted following, so it also went viral among the New York theater crowd.

An Honest Liar has a huge following due to James Randi's devoted following. Tapping into his various niche groups was fairly easy. He has a huge following in the Skeptic and magic crowds, plus he has followings in the gay community. We were also publicly supported by such luminaries as Alice Cooper and Mythbuster Adam Savage, who signed things to give away as rewards and made short pitches for the campaign.

Unique Rewards: Both our campaigns had some unique rewards. Because both had people involved with their own fan bases we catered to them. An Honest Liar is giving out books and rare vintage posters signed by James Randi, as well as things like an Alice Cooper DVD signed by both Alice and Randi. With Facing East we took advantage of our director Will Swenson's Broadway celebrity status. For $5,000 Will would serenade you publicly (you pick the song, he picks the venue), and for $3,000 Will's wife, Tony winner Audra McDonald, would call you on your birthday and sing Happy Birthday to you. No one sponsered at this level, BUT all of our publicity and press led with it. They were great rewards to talk and write about. Headlines would read: Want to have 5 time Tony winner Audra McDonald sing to you? So that worked out to be great publicity, with no commitment afterward.

We also printed up T-Shirts for Facing East which were popular. After they were printed my fellow producer, Emily Pearson, and I posed in them and the photo went semi-viral. I'm pretty sure we'll be able to sell them on our website for added benefit.

The best reward were amazing leather and wooden beverage coasters that An Honest Liar director Justin Weinstein made. As he was describing them I was very dubious, but once I saw them I was converted. People have gone significantly gaga over them.

The important thing is to not offer too much at low reward levels that need mailing. For Facing East we considered doing one of those rubber bracelet things at the $10 level, but it would've required mailing out over 300 of them... and for An Honest Liar we considered a button, but we currently have 2,500 supporters, and counting.

The best rewards you can give are digital downloads of the film. They essentially cost you nothing (apart from having a digital version and a location to post where people can download from) and they're more popular than DVDs normally anyway.

Graphic Design: It's important that it looks good. I spent a lot of time to make Facing East look good, but then Justin, whose graphic design skills far outweigh my own, hit it out of the park with the An Honest Liar page. Spend a lot of time looking at other Kickstarter pages, and plagiarize from the best. (It should be noted that both of these pages were inspired by The National Film Society's great graphics of the campaign for their Awesome Asian Bad Guys campaign).

• Publicity: We were blessed with great publicity. For Facing East my normal publicist sent out a press release I did for free. If you don't have a friend who's in the publicity business you'll have to pay for it. For An Honest Liar Tyler and Justin hired an awesome company called Film Presence, who seem to have really helped to elevate the status of the campaign. They've worked as a sort of all in one, spreading word through Facebook, Twitter, etc. and consulting on the Kickstarter campaigne and spreading the word.

I didn't know that IndieWire's Project of the Day was something you could nominate yourself for (If you're chosen as Project of the Day, then you can be voted as Project of the Week, then Project of the Month). If I did I would've done it for Facing East. That's what a group like Film Presence can get for you. Follow this LINK to submit your own project.

• Updates: Definitely follow Kickstarter's suggestion to make updates for your supporters. Make them engaging and interesting. I have supported several different campaigns, and I admit, I don't always read the updates that are sent to me, but I think most do.

• Video: Kickstarter stresses the importance of your video. They suggest you keep it short, like around three minutes. Both of the videos I used are longer. I think our Facing East video is a bit too boring. Not fast paced enough. But it's sincere. I really like what Tyler and Justin did with theirs. Both of the videos highlighted the various "Name Players" involved in the project. The important thing is to not look like a chump, someone who feels like he/she deserves the support. It's important to be humble. Since we're talking about making movies, it's also important to look like you know how to make a movie. Having a good sense of humor is important too. Our Facing East video was watched all the way through only about 32% of the time, An Honest Liar video was watched about 45% even though it's longer. I don't know what that proves, but those are the stats.

• A Few Final Issues: Make sure your Kickstarter account is set to your business account. I set up Facing East with my personal account because I didn't have our business account information (not thinking anything of it). After our successful campaign I transferred all the funds to our business account, but I received a 1099 tax document to myself for $70,000. Now my accountant is going to have to jump through some hoops to make that not look like personal income.

Remember that Kickstarter and Amazon (which handles the money transfer through Amazon Payments) both take a percentage. I think it adds up to about 8%. Also remember that some people will sign up to support you, then once you finish the campaign, the charge won't go through... they may have entered an old credit card number, or they can even cancel the charge. We lost about ten out of 350 contributions for Facing East, which equalled about $200.

Conclusion: I believe Kickstarter will continue to be a necessary tool for independent filmmakers for a long time to come. For one of my past films, Daylight Savings, we used Kickstarter as the initial release of the film. We funded a national tour through the platform distributing the film exclusively to those who supported the campaign. This unique approach is an example of the creative approaches to Kickstarter that people can make that will allow projects to rise above the others. Director Dave Boyle and Daylight Savings was featured significantly in an article in the print version of Filmmaker Magazine because of this original distribution model.

Goh Nakamura and Yea-Ming Chen in Dave Boyle's Daylight Savings
I encourage you to extend the creativity and need for expression that got you into film in the first place to your next Kickstarter campaign.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Hank & Asha - a dynamite no-budget film

It was my pleasure to catch the charming film Hank & Asha at this years Slamdance festival. I saw several films, all of which could be considered great examples of micro-budget filmmaking, but Hank & Asha was by far my favorite. And for once in my life, I am not alone, as I’m happy to announce that it went on to win the Audience Award at the festival.

Hank & Asha is a simple story about two lonely people, one a student far from home in Prague, and one an aspiring filmmaker, far from home in New York. Through video chats the two meet and fall in love. It sort of has a similar plot to Lost in Translation, which I personally didn't enjoy much. I think Lost in Translation was less about lonely people, and more about bored people, and I don’t think bored people make good subjects for movies.

 The entire story of Hank and Asha is told through their video messages. While this format could quickly become tedious, in the able hands of first time writer/director/producer James E. Duff it soars with personality, charm, and an innocence that I find lacking in most independent films.

Director James E. Duff directs Andrew Pastides (Hank)
Reading the brief synopsis in the program, I went in wondering if it would be just shot by the two lead actors, with just source light, etc. Happily it was a well-shot, well directed movie. Because the two protagonists are a filmmaker and a film student it’s plausible that their video messages are more than just chats. In fact, the film is one of the better looking that I’ve seen shot on the 5D, so a big shout-out to DP Bianca Butti.

 The biggest compliment I can ever give a film is that I’m jealous of it. I was definitely jealous of Hank & Asha. Jealous if the idea, of the skill displayed by its creators, and jealous of how much fun it seemed to make.

I was fortunate enough to sit down with James and his wife/co-writer/editor/producer, Julia Morrison, for a few seconds in Park City to get some of the details. James and Julia said that they wanted to make a movie that was personal and true to who they were. That said, they don’t seem to be cynical folks, but seem to be a genuinely happy couple with a positive outlook on life. Though the film isn’t autobiographical, it has autobiographical elements (Asha is a student at the Prague school where James and Julia taught for two years). The film that people seem to be comparing it to is Once, which James admits he saw four times in the theater.

The film was shot over twenty-one days: ten in Prague, followed by eleven in New York. Their DP, Bianca, came with them to Prague, but other than that, they had a Prague crew and a New York crew. That crew consisted of some co-producers, their DP, an assistant camera person/gaffer, a single person art crew and a mixer. Julia said her one regret was not having a location manager. This is a role that is so frequently overlooked. As a former location manager I am always cutting that line item thinking I’m going to save money if I do it myself. I vow to the world, right here and now, that I will never do it again. You want a location manager. You NEED a location manager. There’s so much you as a producer have to focus on, without worrying about the location, or staying behind to clean the toilet.

Their locations were mostly friends’ places, restaurants and bars where friends worked, etc. But both New York, and especially Prague, are shown off and exploited for all their gorgeous effect.

The lovely and talented Mahira Kakkar (Asha)
Holding the film together was the stellar cast of Andrew Pastides and Mahira Kakkar. This is a movie that is made of almost entirely of close ups on these two actors, so their performances are critical. James and Julia said that if they couldn’t cast it right, they wouldn’t do it. They were fortunate to know casting directors Elissa Myers and Paul Fouquet, who hit it out of the park. My hat is off to these two amazing actors who I’m sure will resurface in other things soon, and who I would cast at the drop of a hat (the hat I already have off, in fact).

So the takeaway: Make a movie that reflects your heart. Don’t worry about following the latest trend or worrying about what people want to see or what festivals want to program. Make it personal, and hopefully that personality and passion will reflect on the screen. James and Julia’s personality is one I’d be happy to return to again and again.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

More from Kickstarter

I will be giving a full account of my experience raising over $70,000 via Kickstarter later. I promised a blow by blow, and I intend to keep the promise... but it's a longer post and requires the one thing I don't have much of: TIME.

In the meantime, another project of mine has launched its own Kickstarter. I know, crazy right? AN HONEST LIAR is in post-production and we are hoping to raise $148,000 to get us through. We'll see what happens.