I attended this year’s Berlinale and European Film Market for the 20th time. And at the airport waiting for the short hop back to London I realised that this year’s film extravaganza had six easy lessons filmmakers can learn from. That is, if filmmakers and screenwriters were willing to see them.
Firstly, and by way of context I realised that most screenwriters and filmmakers are male. Sadly it is this overabundance of male writers that gives one a clue to the first way to hedge your bets and get your movie or script a serious look. Most of the time, the first professional filter of your script or film is going to be female.
Production companies and distribution companies are flooded with great scripts and great movies. The thing you are trying to avoid is having your project blend in with everyone else.
Here are the five simple tweaks you can make that will elevate your script or movie out of the ordinary. Then it is far more likely that your script and/or movie (and you as a filmmaker) will be taken much more seriously by the decision makers in the film industry.
6 Easy lessons filmmakers can learn from Berlinale 2020
Lesson 1: Make the main character female
My guess is that it’s 7 out of ten times it’s a woman who makes the first decision in the development or acquisition process. Make a movie with a female hero and you will instantly catapult your script or movie into favoured nation status.
Here’s the simple reason: scripts and movies with female leads are rare. My theory is that a female development or acquisition executive will grant your female-led story a little extra time before they grant a yay or nay. And that little bit extra can often mean the difference between a red and green light.
Don’t think your only route to a female-led story needs to be a Tarantino-esque chick flick. Quite the opposite. I’m talking about a story where the main character happens to be female. And a female hero who encounters any type of obstacle except one about ‘the guy’.
Have a good lard look at the Bechdel test. It’s the brilliant Scandanavian means-testing to see how female a story is. And curiously enough, the higher the Bechdel test rating the better the film’s box office.
Lesson 2: Genres to avoid
Why add to the glut of unproducable and undistributable movies? While strolling through the European Film Market this week, I had meetings with four-dozen sales agents. To each I asked what was selling and what wasn’t. To sum up their answers I thought I would highlight the three types of movies that are really tough to sell.
No one likes a drama. The reason is that all stories are dramas, and it takes a lot of effort for a sales executive to understand what your movie is about. Even the so-called ‘done time-and-time again’ drama story-types like coming of age, social impact topics or socially aware stories are difficult to market and even more difficult to sell.
Write your stories under one of the genre story types like horror, sci-fi, thriller, crime or comedy. Better yet, do what my first volunteer/helper Edgar Wright did with his first movie Shaun of the Dead – a horror/comedy hybrid.
Then the marketing people will know what your movie is about, and will start to see your story in pictures, not in words.
Some of my favourite independent films over the years at Raindance have been comedies. But after this year’s experience in Berlinale, I am going to stop advising new filmmakers to make comedies. And the reason has to do with budget.
You see, with a horror film, the camera is usually close in on an actor going “Arrrg!” So one can make it with an unknown and cheap cast. But in comedy, we usually see the mid-shot, which means the actors heads are smaller. In order to follow the characters we now need an actor with a recognizeable (and expensive) face. And usually an experienced director and editor who understand the timing and staging required for humour.
Another drawback is that humour in one country may not translate to another culture or language.
Horror is the traditional genre of choice for filmmakers starting out. It’s cheap to shoot, and it is almost always able to find the strong niche horror audience.
But nowadays, productions companies who are making horror films are applying the types of deep data research touted by startup Storyfit (with whom I met in Berlin’s EFM Startup) or the deep data tools creatives are using to enhance creativity – the sort of teaching Kira-Anne Pelican does at Raindance.
In other words, production companies are learning how to use powerful deep data tools to discern which audience fits with their story idea, and then retool their scripts to fit.
That’s the science angle for avoiding a horror script, fun and cheap as it may be to produce. There are just too many of them out there. If you are making a horror, be sure to do your research and find out what you can add to your project that makes it stand out from the reams and reams of other indie horror films and scripts.
Lesson 3: Choosing the correct title
The film marketplace is very noisy and very loud. This year’s European Film Market featured some 5,000 features. The Raindance programming team brought home 142 titles to consider for this year’s festival.
Put yourself in the shoes of a development or acquisition executive in such a noisy space: how do you distinguish the wheat from the chaff?
Probably the best way is with the title of your film. A good title should be two or three words, taut and tense. These words should sell the story. A good tip is to be specific, yet general. For example, look at titles of commercially successful movies. Gone With The Wind is far better than The Wind. Meet the Parents better than The Parents. Blair Witch Project is obscure but good because it is obscure, and has the word witch in the title.
Movie titles appear in the market and festival guides where hundreds and hundreds of films are listed with nothing but the title, director and country of origin. Full stop. That’s a very limited footprint for your movie – make the most of it.
Lesson 4: Preparing marketing materials
Once you have attracted the attention of a film executive with the title of your film or screenplay, let’s hope they give a collective sigh of “now I get it!” when they see the poster.
Creating a poster is probably the single most important visual element you can create for your movie.
For writers, of course you don’t create a script cover like you might for a novel. But a producer can and most certainly will include conceptual artwork for a marketing campaign in the pitch deck they create for finance.
Of course, once the film secures distribution, artwork is needed for everything from bus shelter ads, to cinema quads to social metadata banners of varying sizes.
Lesson 5: Quibi
The top execs in Berlin were all talking about Quibi.
What is Quibi?
Quibi is a mobile-only streaming platform for movies less than ten minutes long. It’s a paid subscription service costing $4.99pm with ads, or $7.99pm without ads.
Distribution is going to be changed yet again. This is going to impact filmmakers enormously, for it means the picture format is going to be portrait instead of landscape. In other words, 9:16 rather than 16:9
Much as I hate portrait, I, along with every other filmmaker is going to have to get used to this new format. And most likely shooting two different versions: the traditional wide screen for those majestic wide shots, and portrait for those intimate dialogue scenes. Preparing your movie for delivery to Quibis as well as the traditional online and offline screening formats will present yet another challenge for filmmakers who are already struggling with a wide range of delivery requirements. [link to RD article]
In Berlin I met with Kamua – a new start-up at the EFM Startups. Kamua is an editing tool that allows you to quickly reformat a traditional landscape into a mobile ready portrait. I saw their new software demonstrated and it dramatically reduces the time reformatting takes.
Lesson 6: Story research powered by AI
I was already aware of the deep-data mining techniques used in advanced story writers’ rooms – the sort of story design propelled by Cambridge Analytica-type data scraping. This pioneering work is taught by Raindance’s very own Kira-Anne Pelica and her excellent Deep Characterisation and Moneyball workshops.
Basically, Kira-Anne has identified a dozen archetypal characters in stories. By analysing your script or movie she is able to forecast its social media profile. By judging the potential social media engagement, one is then able to predict box office (for movies) or sales (for publishers).
I was pleasantly surprised to meet Will Manelos of Storyfit at the EFM startups.
What is Storyfit?
StoryFit delivers AI-powered story research. They use cutting edge machine learning and NLP to get at the underlying question: what about your story resonates with audiences. Their next-gen tech granularly compares your script to over 100,000+, which is powerful for accurate comps, identifying universal themes, and determining character archetypes that can travel. They’ve received a ton of press, by helping studios use data to create a competitive advantage. Learn more at StoryFit.com.
Successful filmmakers, or should I say, enterprising content creators, are always on the lookout for new trends and ideas that might propel their projects into the limelight. This enhances the possibility of recoupment and profit.
And that’s what attracts me to industry showdowns like the European Film Market in Berlin, or the Marche du Film in Cannes. It is in these crass markets that art meets commerce. When it works, it is a thing of beauty to behold.
Let’s make movies.