5 First Steps To Take Before Making Your Film

Here I am, eleven years ago, with no idea what I have gotten myself into.
Here I am, eleven years ago, with no idea what I have gotten myself into.

A question came up during yesterday’s (wonderful) Live Chat for The Videoblogs, that I thought I would re-address in a bit more detail here.

The gist of it — how to get started making your first film?

There are plenty of good ways to answer this question. There are many great resources out there outlining the basics of any one facet of this noble, unwieldy endeavor.

Knowing this, and also knowing that it matters more to me to tell a good story than craft a perfect picture, I focused my answer on an attempt to pre-hack the biggest challenges that are likely to come up in pursuing the coveted first film.

As such, my recommendations tend towards sustainability and focus, rather than process or technique.

Process and technique can be filled in beforehand with research and experimentation. Or you’ll learn by failing and re-starting at certain points in your journey.

But these are the top five pieces of advice I might have, at present, for anyone starting their first film today.

1. Understand the situation you’re getting yourself into

PA Puppy can't get a Grip.
PA Puppy can’t get a Grip.

The planning and execution of a film is a very large undertaking. Even if you’re starting small — issues or challenges or requirements are going to come up that you never expected. You will be tested.

I don’t think that filmmaking is for everyone. There are a lot of people out there working to write and/or direct their own films…who don’t seem happy. There could be several reasons for this, but chief among them could be that the idea of filmmaking is a lot more glamorous that its reality.

I’ll have more to say about this in a moment, but the reason I bring this fact up first is because I really do think that the best way to handle the difficulties of the task is to first acknowledge and accept that it’s going to be difficult. If we’re fighting ourselves at the same time that we’re fighting to get the film made…both self and film will suffer.

There are other ways to engage your sadistic side than deciding to commit years of your life to the foolish endeavor of bottling and reshaping a slice of space-time using magical machines.

If you still can’t help yourself…

2. Have a system of self-care in place

Once or twice a year, I go to the woods.
Once or twice a year, I go to the woods and find a big stick.

I have written much about this already. I will keep writing about it. Again — making a film is very hard work. Often, when we’re starting, we’re working within constraints of time, money and all the rest that comes with the responsibility of everyday living.

I’m still working on this part.

The fact is, you could sacrifice everything for your film and emerge very pleased with the end product.

Doing this, however, might leave you at the same time irrevocably embittered by the process you just went through — or dealing with an poisonous buildup of entitlement.

Because you poured it all into the work and then had nothing left to sustain your actual life, your relationships, your next project.

It’s the live to work or work to live dilemma.

Because it’s so beautiful and fulfilling, art-making can muddy up our perspective of the pursuit — but the fact remains that making a film or writing a book or whatever…it’s still work.

We’re not built to labor around the clock. Inevitably, when we try, breakdowns commence.

It will be hard.

Those who find their way towards filmmaking tend to overwhelmingly be high-functioning perfectionists, often with reserves of (not unhelpful) arrogance to call upon for that extra juice (“I can bottle space-time!”).

But knowing or learning or carefully exploring our limits, with an eye on longterm personal and career health, will make the journey and the film that much better for you and everyone else involved.

3. Have a reason

For The Videoblogs, our reason was getting out and talking about mental health in America.
For The Videoblogs, our reason was getting out and talking about mental health in America.

This piece of advice is only third because I’m supposing that most people reading this, and/or taking my words seriously, already have a compelling reason for pursuing filmmaking (or any one film).

But, if you don’t, think long and hard about whether you can find a reason, or whether the one you think you have is strong enough to sustain you when chaos or despair descends on your production and your life, despite all of the warnings and precautions outlined above and below.

In my experience, you need this reason. On some days, it will prove the only thing capable of keeping you going when you want to quit. Why this film, and now?

4. Have a plan

I held at least six separate positions during production of The Videoblogs. Why? Because it had to be done to keep things moving.
There’s a reason this image serves at the backdrop for the Coffee with Creatives logo.

Hang with me here, for a second.

Obviously, if you’re intending to make a film — you’ll need a plan. There’s no way it comes off without one. Even if your plan is to keep things loose, there’s a lot of preparation that you need to do to allow that possibility on set.

Still, I’m not really talking about the how. That’s all up to you. It’s just hard work.

What’s just as important, however, is that you have a plan for: 1) Fitting the giant disruption that is the making of a film into your daily life, and 2) Ensuring that the giant disruption leads to worthy results.

To address the first, I’d recommend doing some serious, honest work to prioritize what needs prioritization, with an eye on what’s realistic. Assume everything will take twice as long, and be twice as difficult, than you might expect.

Ensuring worthy results, to be clearer, means having a distribution plan. Ideally, a few of them.

At minimum, know how to get the film to your core audience, no matter how small or local. These are your first champions.

You will need them. Respect this relationship enough to put the work into it. Think about how your film can serve your core audience, and how to make it convenient for them to participate in its distribution when the time comes to push your project out into the world.

5. Be willing to be patient

It will take years -- but the hard work and the waiting are usually worth it.
It will take years — but the hard work and the waiting are usually worth it.

This last suggestion is as much for me as anyone else. The reality of filmmaking is that it takes an enormous amount of time. If we do our job well, this enormity ends up hidden to general audiences.

The way most people experience entertainment is to consume it, quickly and ruthlessly.

Behind all that quickness and ruthlessness, on the side of the consumption of content, there’s slowness and a methodical attention to detail that is required on the part of the content creator.

If and when we cheat, to get things done faster or to “just get them done”, we endanger the sanctity of this relationship between creator and audience, as manifested by the creation.

If we are lazy at any point, or give in to bitterness or despair and shortchange any one part of the completion of a film, we risk dooming the entire endeavor.

On the flip side, we can obsess too much, and risk burning out in the vocation, or on any one project. It’s a delicate balance, that really only begins to make sense over time.

Conclusion

Filmmaking is a beautiful, noble, privileged pursuit. It’s brought great purpose, joy, and meaning to my life. Pain and disappointment have also entered the equation at points.

If and when we can find a real reason to move forward truthfully with a project, and so proceed with it while taking care of ourselves and respecting our audience — then we can enjoy and thrive under the vocation.

Best of luck to anyone mad enough to give it a try.


profpic_squareMy name is Michael. I am a Writer and Filmmaker
of hopeful stories for complex people. Lately, I have been sharing some reflections and stories every morning. Once per month, I send a special note to those on my email list. They get exclusive stories and advanced (sometimes free) access to my work. You can join this exclusive group here. Thanks for reading.

What I Liked This Week: Hustler Edition

No. Not the nudie mag. Not even the iconic film.

This week, I’m highlighting three resources I stumbled upon, or sought out, that helped me hustle. As in work. Hard. Quickly. Efficiently.

Fractured Atlas Space Finder

It took me all of five minutes to find a space and book it. That's how it should go.
It took me all of five minutes to find a space and book it. That’s how it should go.
I did not know this existed. It’s fantastic. From Fractured Atlas:

For artists, the process of finding work space can be frustrating and inefficient. Meanwhile, venues have limited resources to spend finding new renters. Earned revenue is critical for creative venues yet many rental spaces are tragically underutilized. Through the SpaceFinder program, Fractured Atlas is increasing visibility of rental options, helping artists find the space they need, and helping venues promote and rent their spaces.

What happened was that I needed a space to record my Coffee with Creatives interview with Rick Younger (Coming Soon).

When I meet people in the city, especially when they’re doing something kind like meeting me to talk, I like to try to find a place or a space that’s easily accessible to them and either halfway between where we’re both going afterwards or at least fairly close. This time around, I was in a bit of a rush to find a spot, and didn’t know of too many spaces, off-hand, that would be quiet enough to record a podcast. The Space Finder allowed me to find something, quickly. It’s a great resource and I appreciate that it exists.

Filmmakers, actors, performers should check it out.

A Different Kind of Meditation: An Analysis of Word of Mouth (WOM) Marketing

Up is down and down is up.
WOM starts with doing something different.
I believe I stumbled upon Lincoln Murphy’s great Medium piece on WOM via GrowthHackers.

Anyone interested in authentically building an audience, and then smartly and honestly growing that audience, would do well to read it. Murphy specializes in Software as a Service (SaaS) but rightly points out that his observations apply universally to most companies.

I’d take that further, and hitch it up to the “Filmmaker as Entrepreneur” argument, to include anyone whose work would and does benefit from WOM.

The biggest take-away, in my opinion — WOM starts with a great product. From there, it’s about talking to your audience, and asking them what they like and want. It’s about participating in a relationship — not simply selling.

I shared the post with Seed and Spark’s #FilmCurious crew, and people seemed to agree with me that all this is relevant to what we do. For me, that seems to prove Murphy’s point.

Speaking of the #FilmCurious…

Click the image to read a transcript of the chat
Click the image to read a transcript of the chat
This conversation couldn’t have been more appropriate for me. First, contributing towards a new and more equitable business model for indie film is my greatest obsession after contributing towards a greater dialogue about empathy and equality (through storytelling). In addition to that, after bringing The Videoblogs to Big Vision Empty Wallet’s (BVEW) 2015 Distribution Lab — I and the #VideoblogsFilm team are now working hard to iterate our business plan, finish the film, and get it out into the world.

Chat guests Jon Reiss and Adam Leipzig were very helpful, and gave a lot of great advice during the chat. As usual, the #FilmCurious crew also brought their own juice to the discussion. I brought fruit punch. It may have been spiked.

Good read. Get on it.

And have a good week.

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The Videoblogs Selected for Big Vision Empty Wallet’s 2015 Distribution Lab

After the lab, we will set our sights on completing the film and gearing up for next steps.
After the lab, we will set our sights on finishing the film and gearing up for next steps.

Hey, Team #VideoblogsFilm!

Rebecca and I are excited to announce that The Videoblogs has been selected to participate in Big Vision Empty Wallet’s 2015 Distribution Lab.

From BVEW’s site:

The goal of the program is to provide producers with the tools, information, and relationships they need to secure distribution deals for their films and be prepared for distribution.  Official education partners VHX and Seed&Spark will be instrumental in educating participants so they can optimize their projects to receive lucrative distribution deals and also plan for self distribution as a means to maintain ownership and make a profit, not as a last resort.

We’re very excited for this opportunity to better prepare for the eventual distribution of the film, to work with BVEW, VHX, and Seed&Spark (and other groups and pros) on our strategy, and to meet and engage with the other lab participants.

Here’s the announcement, that includes a bit more info, and links to summaries of the other selected projects: http://bigvisionemptywallet.com/distribution.

Thank you, again and as always, for all your help with making this film happen. We’ll continue to keep you posted on our progress.

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All This Chaos: Translating The Indie Film Landscape

Our audience-building for Multiverse began with our crowdfunding campaign (even earlier, actually).
Our audience-building efforts for Multiverse began with our crowdfunding campaign (even earlier, actually).

This week, I attended Screen Craft’s inaugural New York City panel, Digital Discourse: The Future of Distribution and Content Creation, at the WGA-East. It was a genuinely great panel. You can read a summary from Screen Craft by following that link, Indiewire pulled some more highlights here, and the discussion was recorded and should be available soon online via Screen Craft and/or other resources.

That being said, I want to also chime in a bit about what I gleaned from the discussion. Bits and pieces of what was said have been banging around in my brain for the past few days, and I think some paths are beginning to emerge in there that are made out of the contributions of the thoughtful, focused, hard-working people who made up the panel.

The links above provide plenty of information on what was said. The video will offer the full set of info and insight — and I would encourage interested filmmakers to check it out when it’s available. But, for what it’s worth, here’s what I got out of it.

While not an exhaustive list, we (filmmakers and creators), need to focus on:

Realism

This is something that people generally shy away from saying (because they’re nice), but many people who call themselves filmmakers don’t try hard enough or don’t work hard enough to develop the confidence and skills necessary to achieve long-term success (however that may be defined) while at the same time cultivating their artistic voice. I’m saying it now because I’m not speaking to anyone directly, and can further bite the bullet and point at a past version of myself who was guilty of this very mistake.

I could write about this point for days, but in terms of the end-game (monetizing work to at least the point of sustainability, if not past it), it’s sufficient to point out that none of the panelists that spoke on Wednesday were wrong — the reality of the distribution landscape is that it’s not the same, that it continues to change almost daily, and that “the good days” are not coming back. The old narratives of what it means to be an indie filmmaker (perhaps even a filmmaker in general) and to succeed as one — they no longer apply. This is not news to a lot of people, perhaps. But there’s a difference between knowing there’s a mess to be sorted through and accepting the responsibility of the sorting. This is why focusing on the next three concepts is crucial.

Adaptation

Marc Schiller of BOND360 spoke passionately about his findings so far as his firm continues to partner with filmmakers to navigate this changing distribution landscape, but the lead-in to almost every specific note he made, and every recommendation, can be summed up by the word: adapt. Once we’ve accepted that the landscape is shifting, adaptation becomes not only an imperative for survival but an invitation to innovate. There’s no rule that says indie filmmakers can’t thrive in today’s current climate. But as Marc and other panelists pointed out, we have a responsibility, as storytellers, to trace the organic pathways to our audience by not only creating and delivering what we feel compelled to share with them, but to also do so in ways that appeal to what they want and expect out of the equation.

Experimentation 

Figuring out how to adapt requires testing and experimentation. Highlights from the panel, in this regard, include testimony from moderator Ryan Koo (founder of NoFilmSchool.com) and Erica Anderson (from crowding-funding and distribution platform Seed&Spark). From what I know about Ryan, it seems an argument could be made that he’s got to where he is now almost purely on the basis of experimentation. He had ideas (both creative and entrepreneurial) and combined them and tried things out. One thing led to another, in succession, over the years, until he got to the point where he’s now developing his first feature. Erica spoke about Seed&Spark’s WestFest film festival in LA, through which they were able to test some of their ideas on how to reach sustainability by putting just as much effort into collaborative distribution and community building as they did programming. Along the way, they piloted other ideas surrounding the potential for joint-revenue between filmmakers (such as a tip jar).

Marc Schiller and Adam Neuhaus (from Radical Media) detailed similar efforts to test ideas and approaches surrounding how to engage and market to customers who are actually interested in you and/or your product (a strong case could also be made that, as a creator, you are also your product). They (and other panelists) also pointed out the importance of keeping audiences happy by giving them what they want and by making it as easy and simple as possible to get it — and making the exchange fun as well at every opportunity.

A lot of this is about embracing some of the spirit of experimentation and ingenuity that has served the tech industry well in recent years — and tethering it to your creative intentions.

Tact

All of this being said, we have to think as well. It’s not enough to listen to advice and follow it blindly. This is a similar point to the one I made last week in my post about creative productivity, when I wrote about the necessity of introducing thoughtfulness and discernment into our daily considerations about what to do and how. Assuming the creative impulse takes care of itself, and/or that we’re able to establish our workflows and put in the work and get the films planned and made — a consequence of looking at the distribution landscape realistically is that we need to adapt and experiment thoughtfully as we develop the work. We need to apply strategy, at the earliest phase of preproduction, to the overall need to build, engage, and nurture an audience. I spoke briefly on Twitter with Dani Leonard of Big Vision Empty Wallet about this as well recently — all of this needs to be done after you have developed your voice as an artist (or, at the very least, as you develop it) and are thus capable of figuring out out how to truthfully introduce that voice into all efforts to get your work seen. If, as a filmmaker, you can’t do this, whether it’s because you don’t have the time or the skill set — find someone who can. Or partner with an organization who can help. Make sure that person or organization understands you and the work, and/or help them understand.

Conclusion: Opportunity is Out There

All this chaos is to the advantage of the independent filmmaker. Big distributors are struggling to adapt to the changing landscape, or refusing to focus on it based on fear or apathy. The studios could care less about what’s happening on the ground, which they can’t see from where they are anyway (I believe Marc Schiller made this exact point during the panel). If we as indies are at all doing our job right, we’re already on the ground watching change take place. Sure, we’re small and we’re broke. That’s often been true of indie filmmakers — at least so long as they hold on to the true spirit of the label. But our smallness and our financial limitations can be leveraged to our advantage. We can make ourselves quick and nimble. We can experiment freely, with nothing to fear from a fall other than another bruise on the ass.

Notice that the Screen Craft panel was smartly “subtitled” to include distribution and content creation. Notice also that I, as an indie filmmaker, also decided to subtitle this post “Translating The Indie Film Landscape” — rather than “Translating The Indie Film Distribution Landscape.”

This is because, like so many other things in our lives as hyper-connected citizens of an increasingly globalized world, it’s all starting to bleed together. So, we have a choice. We can accept the reality — the happy reality, in my opinion — of this great resettling of American independent film, and embrace the chaos and empower ourselves to become a part of its new shape, or can we do nothing and end up left behind to watch others do it instead.