10 Expensive Mistakes Filmmakers Make Ruining Their Careers

I have had the good fortune to meet and work with a great number of wonderfully talented and exciting filmmakers since Raindance started in 1992. Each year at film festival submission time, I have had the benefit of seeing hundreds of shorts, features and documentaries pouring into the Raindance Film Festival office from just about every country around the world. As you’d expect I see some very expensive mistakes filmmakers make.

The Raindance team and I have the great privilege of choosing our personal favourites for the festival. We then track the films through their lives at other festivals and watch as they fall into the hands of distributors, both here in the UK and abroad.

Based on my observations, a couple of year’s ago, I wrote an article called: ‘7 Stupid Mistakes Filmmakers Make‘ which might wrongly imply that I think filmmakers are stupid. Which they are not. I seem to continually get flamed for my opinions. For example, I wrote another article which I called the 8 Mistakes Filmmakers Make That Kills Their Careers – for which I was flamed and torn apart mercilessly.

I was just trying to help!

Do you want the truth? Do you want reality?

Here’s my list of the really expensive mistakes filmmakers make:

1. Wrong Script

The Bible has a gem for independent filmmakers that has lain hidden for centuries: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.’

All movies have to start with a screenplay. And until your script is excellent, there is no point in making it into a film. The number of times I have cringed at best friends’ premieres – at screenings where the films were well-shot, well-acted, and well edited but movies where the script, frankly, sucked – are too numerous to mention here.

I don’t want to go off on a pompous rampage here, but the reason Raindance spends so much time and energy on our scriptwriting classes, and the reason we hone our script reading service to a level we think is world class, is because we believe that the first step in any film is the screenplay.

2. Your Friends Can’t Act

I know you think your script is pretty damn good (let’s face – none of your mates has the balls or the know-how to tell you it sucks) and now you really want to squander whatever nest egg your producer has whipped together for your budget?

Here’s how to really screw up – put your mates in the movie, and not professional actors. Let me wag my finger and make sure you as a director, know how to direct performance.


3. Wrong Budget For The Story

Remember Phone Booth? It had a pretty hefty budget because of the talent in the film – which is cool. But it could have been shot for next to nothing as an indie film.

At Raindance we see ‘phone booth’ type movies hyped up with hundreds of thousands of budget in an exercise that might even have looked better shot on the proverbial frayed shoe-string. Learn to make a film at the right budget level.

Save your big bucks for a screenplay that really needs them.

4. Music Rights

Do you really think no one is going to notice that you remixed Maria Callas doing the big Puccini overture to sound unlike her? Or were you just unable how to figure out how to clear the music rights for your film? Either or, it’s a mistake that’s going to cost you dearly.

The Musicians Union is the strongest union, and they have set up the whole music industry around protecting their members and collecting royalties. Who else knows this? Distributors and broadcasters. They won’t touch your film with a ten-foot pole unless you have the music rights.

If you don’t have music rights, you won’t be able to sell your film. Full Stop.

5. No Social Media Plan

Sales agents and distributors I meet in Cannes and Berlin are increasingly impressed by a filmmaker that can come to them with a social media following. The reason is really simple: If you have people interested in your work, it makes it easier for the distributor to sell them your film.

What I really hate are filmmakers who say they are too visual or some such to get involved with Twitter or Facebook.

Malarkey, I say: Filmmakers are communicators. And in today’s brave new digital age, you need to embrace every communication device you can. Have you checked out the Raindance Twitter profile yet? Follow us, or another favourite social media profile and see how to handle the medium. Then do it better.

6. Uncleared Story Rights

It should go without saying that you can’t make a film from an existing novel or short story (unless it is your own). Ditto for a film you want to make about a person’s life story who is still living.

Make sure you have the correct copyright clearances.

6. No Sales Strategy

Making a film is not only about hanging about on a set with the likes of Kiera Knightley. It’s about knowing to whom you are going to sell your film.

The considered advice is that you need to know who the marketing manager is for the distribution company you think will buy your film. The marketing manager is the one who has to come up with the marketing campaign for your film. That includes the posters, the DVD jacket artwork, the trailers and of course the social media campaign. Get inside their head and figure out what you need to give them to make them look good to their bosses.

7. No Festival Strategy

Certain festivals can help your film’s eventual release strategy. Other festivals can hurt your film. It’s important that the festivals you allow to screen your film can offer you publicity and profile – two things that can assist you to get a distribution deal and/or a film sales agent (should you want one).

8. No PR Strategy

Once a filmmaker understands that the fun part of the filmmaking process is the actual shoot, the tough slog of marketing and selling of the film kicks in. Learn what the 7 essential elements of a press kit are, and decide early on how you want the world to perceive you.

9. Not Putting Investors First

Don’t forget the people that gave you the money to make your film.

They say in Hollywood that you treat your stars like bankers, and treat your bankers like stars.

If you spend time courting them during the making of the film, it is very likely they will come back and re-invest in your film. Things like set visits, a weekly newsletter, sales and festival update and any other perks are the sorts of things that will keep your investors hotter than hot.

10. Not Understanding The Market

If you have targeted your film at a specific market, for example, television, you will need to understand what the issues that TV stations around the world face. Each territory has different censorship and topical requirements. Understanding these is a sure fire way to make you a hit.

Fade Out

Here’s the beauty of filmmaking. Nobody knows anything.

Make it up as you go along, and just make sure you cover off these ten basics, and expensive mistakes filmmakers make. You’ll be much further ahead of most of the competition.

Now, why are you reading this when you should be out writing, directing or producing your movie?



Photo Credit David Martinez / BIFA 2018

Few people know more filmmakers and screenwriters than Elliot Grove. Elliot is the founder of Raindance Film Festival (1993) and the British Independent Film Awards (1998). He has produced over 700 hundred short films and five feature films: the multi-award-winning The Living and the Dead (2006), Deadly Virtues (2013), AMBER (2017), Love is Thicker Than Water (2018) and the SWSX Grand Jury Prize winner Alice (2019). He teaches screenwriting and producing in the UK, Europe, Asia and America.

Raindance BREXiT trailer 2019

Elliot has written three books which have become industry standards: Raindance Writers’ Lab: Write + Sell the Hot Screenplay, now in its second edition, Raindance Producers’ Lab: Lo-To-No Budget Filmmaking and Beginning Filmmaking: 100 Easy Steps from Script to Screen (Professional Media Practice).

In 2009 he was awarded a PhD for services to film education.

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