Filmmaking / Directing : Realities of the Filmmaking World by Matt Lofgren

Matt Lofgren

Realities of the Filmmaking World

Hello all here at Stage 32. I am a fairly active member of Film Specific (not trying to plug that site here by the way), and I had posted a comment that got a lot of people talking - which is a good thing. This is a much smaller (and paid subscription) site focusing on filmmaking, but I thought I would pass it along here... It was in response to the question "Do Producers Get any Back-End Money on Film Projects" (or something close to that). Hello – I am taking a day off from our VFX work on our feature film “Alarmed” so I thought I’d take some time to ramble on in a response to your question (and as I type way faster than I can think sometimes, my responses can get a bit “wordy.”) I guess it really depends on what kind of budget of a film we are talking about here. I would say (speaking strictly for myself here and not anyone else) that the majority of filmmakers on this site are in a low/ultra-low/micro budget category, so in short, no, producers will NOT see any return until everyone else gets paid. So many people have misconceptions about this business until they wake up to the realities of it all - and it's not pretty to the uninitiated! Always keep in the back of your head, that the VAST majority of films NEVER, EVER recoup the initial investment of funds, so consequently the producer, director, writer (often all the same person) doesn't see a dime - or if they do, they have to work damn hard in distribution to make it (or even a fraction of "it") back. As you peruse the forums regarding equity investors, box office receipts, comparable film profits when putting together a business plan, or pretty much anything related to money coming back IN as opposed to money going OUT on a film project, you will find that it is fairly impossible to quantify. The film business is unique in that you won’t ever REALLY find out what films made money and if they did, how much money was ACTUALLY made. "Investing" in a film project is, at this budget level, almost an oxymoron. It’s much more than even a gamble – it really should be looked at as a “gift” with the assumption made that zero monies will ever be returned. I know, that’s a pretty hard thing to hear and even harder to swallow. Yes, you will hear about those very few projects that do become financially successful, and for some of us, that's all we need to keep us going - that my project will be one of those few... But you need to go into the business with your eyes wide open and be realistic about the prospects. The fact that you are on FS and are doing some research is one of the best things you could possibly do - research. Find out what has worked for others - and what hasn't, though I have found that getting specifics on why a project failed is far more difficult. Filmmakers who have failed (as in lost all of their or their investors’ money, not necessarily failed in making a film he/she is proud of) are often reluctant to open up and discuss openly and honestly about WHY or HOW their project failed. Which is certainly understandable - we're human. And what is "being realistic?" Starting your FIRST project likely with a budget less than you ever imagined you would/could ever shoot a film for. So unless you have a really rich parent or uncle who is looking for a way to burn through some serious pocket change, that isn't in the million-dollar range (or any range of “millions”). It's going to be in the low six figure, or even five figure range. Your film is probably NOT going to be a "period" piece, a western, science-fiction, heavy action flick (and yes, I'll likely get some flak from Adam on that one) or comedy. Why? You can't afford to. And that last one, comedy? It won't sell outside the US and unless you really know what you're doing (not likely at this level), comedy is incredibly hard to pull off as a first time film. And you won’t have an A list actor attached. Maybe a B list who is enamored with your script and just likes to work on ultra-low budget projects from time to time – certainly realistic, though difficult. Realistic is researching and sticking to films that SELL - not just sell in a very small niche market, but something in the mainstream. A script that most of us can/will relate to and would WANT to go see. First and foremost – there needs to be a great STORY. All the money, the fancy equipment, the great actors, the period costumes, scenery, special effects, etc, etc are totally wasted without a great (and I do mean GREAT) story. Never, ever forget that and you can start to see how an ultra-low budget film can be made and become successful. That one single thing is WHY so many indie films never recoup any money. Sorry, but you have to (or should) get your mindset around shooting a $50,000 or $100,000 film as your first project. Make it as great of a film as you can possibly make it. Go through all the trials and tribulations at this level FIRST. Learn the craft, learn the business. And it's much more likely you WILL be able to recoup much if not all of your money at this level. Not knowing what you’re doing, yet doing a great job of getting suckers (I meant to say “investors”) who provided you with a million or two for that first film? You have almost zero chance of getting that money back again and we’ll likely never hear from you again on FS or any other filmmaker’s blog or website. THEN - move on to that next project. $500,000 (or less). Sign up a couple recognizable actors. Keep it simple, keep it salable. After you worked your butt off making that first movie and you were really proud to show it off to anyone, you can then consider yourself to be a filmmaker, but more importantly, you will THEN understand: You couldn’t have made that “simple” action scene with that great car chase, where a guy in flames crashes through a store window on a motorcycle, NOT because you couldn’t film it, NOT because you didn’t have someone with a cool car and your buddy willing to put on a fire suit and helmet and jump through that store window… No, you NOW realize that you could have never pulled it off because you NOW know that your production insurance would go up from the $7,000 you budgeted, to over $50,000 because of that ONE scene! And NOW you know that you can’t really just “guerilla” that shot because no one will rent you any equipment without production insurance! Make sense? It is incredibly easy (and fun) to think we can make a Michael Bay or JJ Abrams film by just doing things a little differently and not do it in “Hollywood.” That's NOT being realistc. Just step back, really do your homework, get yourself a project with a STORY. Whether you write that story or bring on someone that has a great story. But make sure that story is something not just you, but everyone you know would want to see, and can relate to. If that story is set in Roman times, or even in the 60s, it likely can be brought in to a modern day timeframe. It’s been said numerous times that every story has been told. Star Wars, Gladiator, Gone with the Wind. They are all stories that have been told over and over again. Each one could be re-written to be a similar story, yet set in modern times. If it can’t, you need to take a pass on it and find something that you can produce at this budget level. No, I'm not there yet. I'm at the $100,000 level and have never worked so hard at spending $100,000 in my life, knowing that I will have to work equally hard, or very likely much harder in my attempt to recoup that $100k! Well, in all honesty is was pretty easy to spend the money, the real hard part was to spend it and stay in that $100k BUDGET! As a former engineer who has been used to making a great living most of my life for a hell of a lot less effort, I often wonder what it is I got myself into!! Actually, I really DID know what I was getting myself in to, though it has been a much more difficult journey than I had anticipated. Has it paid off? Absolutely. Not monetarily - at least not yet (the money flow OUT has yet to reverse course), but hopefully one day... I can promise you one thing - that NEXT film will be better because of the journey I took to get to this stage in my new career. Hope that helps. Matt

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