Film producing is an occupation fraught with danger, mishaps and misfortune. As Shakespeare said: many a slip twixt cup and lip. Here are the ten areas where new producers trip up.
1. Measure Success by More Than a Theatrical Release
The times are a-changin’. The costs and associated risk factor of releasing a film theatrically are so onerous that it is becoming virtually impossible to secure a theatrical release for independent films. Your film might not be right for a theatrical release. Astute producers in the 21st century explore other avenues of distribution including self-distribution, ancillary markets, television and home video. Another drawback with traditional theatrical distribution is the fact that financial and creative control of your movie can easily pass to the distributor, who can often treat a filmmaker as a necessary evil in their business.
The innovative British writer-director Mike Figgis has been campaigning for an alternative distribution strategy since 1999. The advent of digital technology has opened up new exhibition formats. Figgis proposes using alternative venues to cinemas. By wresting control of exhibition from traditional cinemas and exhibitors, Figgis hopes to bring cinema to a new audience and to keep control of the film with the filmmaker. His approach, championing alternative exhibition venues and creating a new cinematic tradition following the model of fringe theatre, is an exciting new opportunity for producers.
Of course online distribution on websites like Netflix, Lovefilm and Blinkbox offer ways filmmakers can find audiences. Astute filmmakers will learn how to manage the theatrical expectations of their cast, crew and investors and highlight the wide range of alternative distribution opportunities.
2. Learn How to Use Agents
New producers treat agents poorly. The common tactic new producers use is to expect assistance from an agent who represents the talent whom they are pursuing for their poorly paid project. Often a producer will make an approach to the agent without proper preparation.
Before you approach any agent, find out who they represent and what sort of material they need from you to secure their clients. Then find out how to approach them in a way that they will say yes.
Remember that when you approach an agent with a minimal budget, they are working for you for free and need to see what other benefits you can bring. For example, you may have a part for their client that shows off a new skill: a comedy actor playing the tragic or evil character. By taking this role, even for a token payment, the actor may expand their repertoire and/or develop their acting skills. The unusual casting may also help to get your film noticed later on.
If you approach an agent professionally with a clearly thought-out plan you are far more likely to be taken seriously and treated with the same respect that is reserved for established producers. Remember that if an agent is unhelpful or treats you with disrespect it may have nothing to do with them and everything to do with your approach.
3. Film Presales
Presales are a thing of the past and are virtually impossible to secure for a new producer without a proven delivery record. Learn to do without on your first project. Make your film, sell it and then use that film’s record for your next financial model and to enhance your pedigree.
4. New Money vs. Old Money
Established industry investors are a conservative lot and will try to exercise creative as well as financial control over your project.
It is true that they have systems in place: application forms you can use, a clearly defined evaluation procedure and enough production savvy to know what can happen during the rigours of production. But they are deluged with material from established producers whom they have already worked with and whom they trust.
Keep your eyes open for the new players in town, and pursue them with the attitude that you are willing to take a risk with them if they are willing to take a risk with you. Remember that you cannot skimp on legal representation at this point. Engage the services of an experienced entertainment attorney who will have the expertise to close the deals while protecting your interests.
Private investors new to the industry are less likely to involve themselves creatively, and may have other agendas prompting them to invest in your film. Try to find out what ancillary services you can offer to your investors (while maintaining your integrity).
5. Festivals Besides Toronto, Cannes and Sundance
Most filmmakers argue that unless they are accepted into one of these festivals they will be unable to secure distribution. This is possibly true. But films like Girls Don’t Cry, Broken Vessels and Amores Perros didn’t preview at these festivals.
There is no doubt that many films entered into the big three do get distribution, but the odds are stacked against getting into these festivals. Very often films programmed at these festivals are included because the festival programmers are pressurized by sponsors. The programmers’ decisions often bear no relation to the quality of the film. It is also worth bearing in mind the promotional machinery behind many of the films at these festivals. Increasingly, films screened at Sundance already have distribution and the festival is merely used as a launch for the ensuing publicity drive. You may get more coverage at a smaller festival where your film has more chance to stand out.
It is also a fact that many of the supposed hot films at these festivals die an anguished box office death. Although a place at Toronto, Cannes or Sundance is a wonderful thing, investigate other launch possibilities and develop a strategy to accompany them.
6. Film Sales Agents Do Not Advance Money
Assume that you will not get a financial advance from a sales agent who is taking your film to a market. Instead of focusing on the advance, ask yourself if the company you have chosen produces good marketing materials. A good sales agent is capable of supporting a European and American festival tour.
It is more important that they understand your film and are in tune with your creative objectives than that they advance you cash. If a sales agent advances you cash, you can run the risk of incurring vast and onerous interest and penalty payments as they recoup. All this before you see another cent.
7. Big Sale vs. Big Career
Sales agents sometimes pay a big advance for a hot film in order to keep costs down. Then they bundle your film with several others and dump them on distributors. Although you have the kudos of landing a big deal, you lose the one-on-one relationship with foreign distributors. Hal Hartley is an example of a filmmaker who has managed his career successfully by developing individual personal relationships with small European distributors who understand him and his films, thus giving him the attention his films require in order to succeed.
8. Film Producing: Success Is Relative
Holding out for the big deal at the expense of time can be a fatal error. Better a small deal now than hoping for a big one in 2 or 3 years’ time when all of the efforts behind your festival and film market strategy have evaporated. Always look at the year ahead and determine where you want to be.
9. Get a Sales Agent Early On
The sooner you find a sales agent the better. Sales agents do more than sales negotiators. They offer excellent advice on how to position films at festivals and markets. They also give invaluable assistance to build profile for the film and for you and then maximise exposure. In many ways, both the sales agent’s and your own career benefit equally from the success of the film. If you wait until the big festival premiere, you are reducing the time available for a sales agent to do their job. You also are gambling on whether or not you are accepted into a festival, and whether or not your film is properly promoted at it.
10. If It Ain’t on the Page It Ain’t on the Stage
The screenplay is everything. Successful producers read, read, read. They read galley proofs of novels and short stories, spec screenplays, and stage plays. They go to the theatre looking for material and new acting talent and they watch movies, movies and more movies. A good producer always has several scripts in development, and is always on the lookout for a hot new writer and a great new script.
Make absolutely certain that the script you want to produce has that one impossibly bold, fresh, original, dynamic idea that nobody else has but which everyone wants. If you have this you will finance your movie.