MAY 2002





So You Think You 
Want To Make A Movie

(a first time producers reality show)


For the past fifteen years, respected Entertainment lawyer Greg S. Bernstein has written a series of exclusive articles on the state of the Independent Financing for the Independent sector of filmmaking for The Business of Film’s Cannes Film Festival edition. Despite the negative economic realities, which all independents are aware of, Bernstein once again offers  insight into ‘tough times” for the emerging Indie producer based on the  harsh economic realties of 2002.

Greg S. Bernstein

You recently graduated film school. You’ve written a script based-on the real-life experiences you and your buddies had growing up. Everyone says the script is really good.  Maybe good enough to be one of those films that sell for millions at Sundance each year. This could be your ticket to fame and fortune.  So with the $50,000 you and your friends have cobbled together, you grab your DV camera, pull together some actor friends from college, and your off to shoot your film.  Next stop the red carpet of the Cannes Film Festival.

Sorry to burst your bubble, but the reality of the “business” of filmmaking is quite different than the enthusiastic, but naïve, approach to filmmaking your considering.   Twenty years ago you could grab a camera and shoot a movie and become a filmmaker.  Ten years ago you could shoot a no name drama and, if it was good, with some luck, be discovered.  In 2002, well, its not quite that simple.

Today, the realities of filmmaking are controlled by business decisions.  As I espoused in an article in this publication last year, movies are merchandise.  Goods to be consumed.  The buyers of film, namely the TV programmers, video distributors and theatrical distributors, buy what they think they can make the most profit from, based on past experience, not what they enjoyed or thought might be good film making, different or even artistic.  

Statistically, the film described above will, after showing at a dozen or so obscure film festivals, ultimately just gather dust in the garage, ….. good reviews or not.  (Yea, I know, you are different and much more talented than the other 1,000 first time filmmakers out there each year who think they are better filmmakers than everyone else.)

    From the choice of story, to the decision to shoot DV, each decision has an impact on the likelihood of anyone ever seeing your creation, let alone you making any money from the venture.

So if your intent is to have your film seen, whether that be in theaters, on TV or on video, so distributors will give you a chance to make bigger and better films, you have to consider buying habits of the buyers.  In other words, just because you build it, they will not come.

Lets take it step by step.

The Story.  Everyone talks about the script and how it has to be good and a good script will succeed no matter what.  Well, that’s a bunch of crap.  The script has to be good, no question, but the story still has to be “entertaining.”  If not, it may get made, but it wont get distributed.

What is meant by “entertaining”?  Unfortunately (or maybe we are fortunate) its not what has become the typical artsy “Sundance” type drama.  Its also not most of the nice, sweet, story films that many young filmmakers are making these days. Coming of age, stories from the heart, or life wrenching experiences, are not what anyone is buying because its not what the general moving going, or watching, public are viewing. Oh they might watch something like that from time to time, but not enough to justify a buyer purchasing such a film when other, more commercial, alternatives are available.

We are in the entertainment business. That means we make films to entertain people.  More times then not, people want to forget the realities of the world.  They want to be scared, laugh or be intrigued.  As Jim Cameron once said, “90% of the movie going audience is there to be entertained, not to write a book report the next day.”  Statistically he was right.  The average American sees 5.3 movies a year, of which less than one of those times (actually its only one out of ten times) its one of the art house (e.g., indie drama) variety.  Although no similar statistics for TV or video are readily available, all you have to do is look at the listings in your cable guide or walk through the video store and you will see that the typical indie drama is no where to be seen.  Even Sundance Channel has moved from the typical artsy drama they used to air to more commercial selections.  

Some of you may still be thinking about the hey day of “indie” films in the early 1990’s.  Back then, “indie” became synonymous with artsy dramas, which became synonymous with Sundance competition films.   But that was a fad, like pet rocks.  And if you think your going to be one of those lucky Sundance film festival films today, first, the odds of making it into the Sundance film festival (800 films submitted for 16 dramatic competition slots) are longer than the odds of succeeding at one spin on the roulette wheel in Vegas (one in 35), let alone the odds of actually walking away from Sundance holding that big multi million dollar distribution deal.  Second, if you look at what titles have been hot at Sundance in recent years, they have not been the traditional drama but have shifted to commercially viable films (action, thrillers, sex) with name cast.

Most indie dramas are great for festivals and great for the egos of the filmmakers after a nice critical review, and maybe a good way to show what the director can do as a filmmaker, but they are not “entertaining” in the traditional sense.  

The buyers of indie films make their purchase decisions on past experience.  Since traditional entertainment is what sells and makes money for the distributors and exhibitors, or at least these days makes more money than the dramas, that is what they tend to buy, at least when story alone is considered.  The buyers have found that the marketplace can only absorb a few dramatic indie films a year.  So choosing to buy a drama would be a risky business decision, better left to studio films with big cast, and it would be more profitable to pick a different type of indie film.  

When in business, most people avoid risk when lesser risk alternatives are available, particularly when times are tough as they are right now.  While you may believe your literary masterpiece will be a big video renter or a good draw for the television audience, the buyers cannot take that chance,  no matter how much they may like your film, unless of course the film had done will at the box office or has some big name stars that create market value.   If you want to be a filmmaker and you make something the buyers just don’t buy, or rarely buy, such as a drama, you have limited the chances of your film being seen.  If your film is not bought and seen, your entry into the world of filmmaking will be short lived.

So launching your career by sticking with “safer” product, such as genre films, or an artsy genre film (like a Blue Velvet or Dressed to Kill or Grosvenor Park) increases the likelihood of your film actually making it into the marketplace, which increases the likelihood of future work in the business.  If your worried about compromising your artistic integrity, keep in mind that Lucas, Coppola, Spielberg and, most recently, Peter Jackson, all started their careers making genre type films.  

What’s hot? Who knows.  Certainly, whatever is hot today won’t be hot by the time you make your film.   But based on what, historically, keeps on selling, good times or bad, both internationally and in the US,  action, thriller, adventure and horror, would seem safe.  Comedies, romantic or otherwise, which most of us consider to be entertaining, are difficult to market at the indie level, for various reasons to complicated to go into in this article.

So how do you determine if your project has, from the story standpoint, commercial viability in the current market?  Work with a sales agent.  They can determine if the story, together with other elements, is viable based on their most recent market experiences.

Cast.  Enough cannot be said about including the right name cast in your film.  A no name film, other than low budget horror, has virtually no chance of success today.  So many times I have viewed movies that were absolutely terrific, even ones I thought were the best indie filmmaking I had seen in years, with stories that were intriguing and entertaining, and were not genre films, but quickly realized that there was no chance for any theatrical, cable, tv , video or international,  because there was no cast.  With modest cast these films may still not have been theatrical, but the chances for TV and video and international would have been respectable. With bigger cast, theatrical would have been likely. Even look at the latest films coming out of the Sundance film festival.  Memento, Tadpole, In the Bedroom.  They all have name cast.

Why does cast make the difference. Cast is insurance.   If a distributor is taking the film theatrically, and spending big bucks to do so, they want to know that people will come to see the film.  Recognizable star names are a draw top the movie going audience. The reason they are stars is because people want to see their movies. The more people want to see their movies, and in fact go to see a movie because of the star, the bigger the star is considered to be.  

The same holds true for video and TV.  Names are a draw to viewers.  But remember some stars are theatrical draws, while other stars only have draw as far as TV or video.  A star can also be attractive to put in one type of film but not another.  Also, TV names generally don’t mean much (with a few notable exceptions).

So the buyers of film product, TV programmers, video distributors and theatrical distributors, buy what has names, based on what names have historically made their film purchases profitable.  Except for low budget horror film, every film made in today’s market needs cast. In order to determine what cast will help or hurt a film, again, work with a sales agent. They know, based on their most recent market experiences, who seems to work or not.

Budget.  The problem with the budget is usually not that you need to spend more to make the film look good.  Usually you need to spend less to make sure your costs are not going to be more than the likely revenue.  With revenues tight, you need to make sure that your not overspending based on the market perception of the value of your film.

Every film, given the genre, cast and several other factors, has a likely range of revenue given current market conditions. For example, non-studio horror film has a likely gross revenue (before sales agents fees and expenses), of between $300,000 and $750,000.  So making a film for $1 million would not be smart.  And don’t start thinking your going to make your film and become the next Blair Witch.  Those are lottery winner type odds.  Again, work with a sales agent to determine the potential, likely, value for your film.

But there is another, more important problem with most first time indie filmmakers and their budgets.  In this case, my concern is that most first time filmmakers have not thought through the realities of what they need to spend to finish a film.   

Many young filmmakers think that they’ll be able to make a film just as cheaply as the Brothers McMullen (reported $35,000) or Robert Rodriquez ($9,000). But those costs were simply the cost of getting the film in the can. In the case of Brothers McMullen, hundreds of thousands of dollars were then added on top of the initial cost for enhancements, sound, music, etc. The fact is,  a film is not complete until all the post is done and all delivery elements created.  

Typically, the cost of actually finishing the film, including the final edit of the film, sound mix, music licenses, creation of delivery elements, such as tape masters and M & E tracks, and the purchase of Errors and Omission insurance, adds any where from $75,000 to $150,000.  For example, the typical cost for preparation for the PAL and NTSC tape masters, in all three formats, runs approximately $15,000 for most indie films. A low con print runs another $3,500. E & O insurance, for a standard policy, runs about $7,000, but there’s another couple thousand dollars for the copyright, title and clearance reports. If you have to do an inter-negative and inter-positive, there’s another $25,000. So the costs add up very quickly. Many times they can even exceed the likely revenue potential.  Most indie filmmakers don’t realize that they are responsible for these costs until its too late and they have no funds to pay for these elements.

Accordingly, when thinking about making a film, think not only of the cost of principal, and not just the cost of post, but all delivery elements as well. Also consider that if you are making your film using the SAG low budget or modified low budget agreements ( I would not use modified myself because of the higher residual rates), you must initially release the film theatrically or you will owe SAG actors more money (usually $25,000 to $40,000 under the low budget agreement and almost double that under the modified low budget agreement), on top of residuals. So put $5,000 in your budget to have one of the small theatrical service companies take you film out one weekend to satisfy the SAG theatrical release requirements.  Finally, don’t forget that if your film is subject to SAG, DGA or WGA, you will have residuals on most, if not all the gross receipts, regardless of the profit on your film.

Digital.  Digital is just not there yet.  The worst thing about Sundance is that a year after some film from the festival hits big, hundreds like it are created.  After “Pi”, everyone thought they could shoot black and white like Scorsese or Spielberg, not realizing that the only time black and white sells, other than in a lightening storm, is when you ARE Scorsese or Spielberg.   With the recent Sundance sale of “Tadpole,” we are likely to have a slew of orange flared, off color, blurry, digital films for next year.

Putting aside the fact that most filmmakers simply grab their low-end consumer video camera  (all video is not created equal),  which gives the film that crisp “porno” look, the buyers are still  reluctant to purchase films shot on video, unless they really cannot tell its video (which with most video is clearly video). Part of this has to do with the fact that most video movies are done with very low quality video cameras and with very little experience by the filmmakers in the use of video cameras.  Blurred scenes, orange hues, camera flares and other problems that we’ve all experienced filming our kids birthdays are what turns off the buyers. And when it looks like video (that nice crisp look), it looks cheap.   

So, while video is growing, if you want to sell your film, still shoot  16 or 35mm. Based on current pricing, by the time the film is finished and delivery elements created, 16mm and video are not that different. You only save in the initial cost of production itself, and not by that much if you shoot efficiently.  

That said, the newer 24P high def. cameras hold promise. With experience in terms of knowing the various camera settings, lighting, etc, plus the proper lab adjustments and processing to film, the quality of results can come close to film. Take Tortilla Soup, for example.  Not only did they not tout the fact it was shot on video, they did such a good job no one can even tell it was video.  

So if you’re going to shoot on video do it right. Use the best cameras and use cameramen and other crew members with experience in shooting digital and use labs ( I guess I can call it that) who know how to “handle” the film (so to speak).

In conclusion, making a film is far more than just making a film. You have to put yourself in the shoes of the buyer of your film and take into consideration all the elements that they will consider when looking to possibly purchase your film. Cast, film quality (or lack thereof) and the typical audience response to stories similar to that in your film are have to be considered before the film is even made.



Reprinted with permission by The Business of Film

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