Monday, August 11, 2008

What's Your Movie's Poster?

Last week, I wrapped up a short consulting gig with a screenwriter who plans to direct the feature script she's written. I worked up a marketing analysis for her script. I wanted to share a few things here from her consultation.

Hers will be an ultra-low-budget HD project, especially given that she plans to direct it and she has no feature directing credits, yet. The question is, should it be a $100K budget, $250K, $500K, or $1M low-budget indie?

The first question we had to address was "what was her movie?"

She had spent the last two years getting her script to the stage it was at. Like most writers, it was hard for her to sum up what the script was about. As I read the script, it seemed to start off as a straight-ahead drama with a female lead, but then it branched off into a quirky-characters, edgy-comedy road trip movie at the top of the second act. I found it competently written, with distinct characters, but confused in its overall tone.

I spent many hours researching comparable titles to hers, based on their budgets, genres, plot elements, and story lines. I sent her that list of 15 titles and asked her to Google them and look at their story lines and especially, posters before our phone discussion. Then, on the phone, I asked her to tell me which posters reminded her the most of her movie.

This was a good place for us to start discussing whether her movie was an art-house drama with a female lead, or an ensemble road trip comedy/drama. Would her poster feature an up-and-coming and/or established actress as the lead -- a prickly screw-up who makes bad choices until she figures out how to love herself? Or, would it feature the lead actress and main supporting actor, plus maybe the road, a car, the motel where she works, etc. with one or two of the supporting characters, too? Would it be SherryBaby or Waitress?

By figuring out that her story was really the former and not the latter, the writer was able to: (a) identify some elements/characters/subplots in her script that were inadvertently leading the reader away from the story she really wanted to tell, and (b) understand a key component of her movie's "sell" -- she'll need to cast her lead with a known actress. What she'll have going for her in her casting efforts is a role that will present an actress an opportunity to play someone unlikable, but ultimately reconciled by the end of the story.

"How much should she make it for?"
This also helped us frame the size of her budget. If she's unable to cast a "name" actress, for whatever reasons, and goes forward with the project, she shouldn't spend more than $100K on its production budget, or even less. This is because of her track record as a first-time feature director and the movie's genre - art house drama with female lead, coming-of-age. The website filmspecific has detailed info/reports for its subscribers on typical sales figures that worldwide territories have paid for films of varied budgets. I gleaned my figure above partly from that website's data and partly from reviewing budget and sales/distribution figures for the comparable titles I researched.

There will also be additional end-game costs to cover like festival submissions, festival/market attendance expenses, publicist(s), deliverable expenses to a distributor (if the movie gets sold), and on and on. Figure that a $100K indie movie may run up $100K in expenses to get out and delivered to paying audiences. If it has no "name" actors in it, and it doesn't become some sort of blessed freak exception/critical darling, it will hard pressed to earn its money back, even at $200K or less, total.

Which does not mean there would be no value in the writer making her $100K movie. She just needs to have an idea what conditions will likely be for her movie's profitability, and plan accordingly (and inform her investors accordingly).

The more known an actress she might cast, and known supporting cast in her movie, the higher she can inch up on the budget scale. If and when the writer-director comes up with a wish list of actresses, I'd be able to do some more specific homework; but, right now, I think $500K is the top of her budget scale...

I know it's anathema for a lot of writers and filmmakers to think of their artfully-crafted stories as a product boiled down to a logline. Your voice is unique, and it's important to be true to yourself. But, by gauging what else is out there BEFORE YOU RAISE MONEY OR SHOOT YOUR MOVIE, you can better articulate your movie, your vision, and be able to enlist others - like sales reps and distributors - to help you reach your audience when it's completed.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Dear Indie Producer

Dear Indie Producer,

What is the best way to go about finding really good actors for a short or independent film? It seems that so many short and indies have bad acting. I'd like to avoid that. Is it the actors or the directors? Basically, how does one make sure that the acting will be good?

Alison Coffey
Iowa City, IA

  • Don't cast the wrong actors.
I've been here before. Wrote a short, produced and directed it myself. And, I made a mistake in casting that I won't repeat again. I had a local stage actor in mind for a principal role as I wrote the script. It was someone I had worked with before on theatre productions; someone I'd been really pleased with in that milieu. So, I cast her in my short without auditioning her.

It was a mistake.

I still don't know if it was an incompatibility with the role, or a poor transition from stage to screen work. But, I didn't fully see the gap until we were filming, and then I couldn't do much to change it. I think I kept hanging on to the good impressions of the prior work we'd done together, hoping that good things would translate... I kept hoping we could rehearse ourselves to a performance I wanted. Ultimately, nope.

It was a mistake as a producer, and a failure as a director.

So, a piece of advice for casting your ultra-low-budget short or indie feature film. Hold auditions for everybody. You need to see and feel the dynamic among different combinations of auditioning actors. One actor may read beautifully as Character A; but, when paired with another actor auditioning for Character B, they don't match up somehow. You'll have to make some hard choices.

You've got to be selfish with your movie. If someone looks the role, but can't act themselves out of a box, don't cast them. Worst-case scenario will be that they won't improve during rehearsals/filming, you won't be able to direct them or edit them into an acceptable performance, and your movie will suffer for it. Badly.
  • Contact local casting directors and/or acting coaches and schools.
If you're making a feature, find the money to work with an established casting director. Casting is their business. They'll know actors you've probably never heard of. They'll know which actors have agents and don't. They'll have an idea who's reliable, and who's a flake. They'll have an idea who's a consistent performer, and who's not. They'll know SAG rules. They'll know politics and etiquette with agents.

If you don't have enough money for their casting fee(s), barter. Figure out how to make the situation a win-win for you and them. Or, hold a fund-raising garage sale, benefit concert, etc. to raise the dough. It will be money well-spent.

If you're casting a short, a casting director will be overkill. Instead, contact local acting coaches and acting schools. Ask them for their help getting the word out about auditions for your movie. Ask them for recommendations of local actors. Cast the net (pun intended) as wide as possible in your community about your upcoming auditions: web sites, college acting departments, local acting schools, community and professional theaters, audition fliers in coffee shops and community bulletin boards, etc.

Plus, each state has a film commission. Check out their website and resources. Do they post an audition announcement page? Get yours on it.

And, don't forget your peers. Ask your fellow filmie friends what they've done and how for casting their short/indie movies.
  • Be prepared for auditions.
Be sure to choose "sides" (audition scenes from your script) that give actors something to bite into during their auditions. If it's a scene where two characters are brooding silently in a car -- not much to work with there for an auditioning actor, y'know? On the contrary, if it's a scene where two characters are hiding from someone and heatedly discussing their next move, there'll be more subtext and dynamism in the scene for auditioners to work with. And, sides should be no longer than two pages, three max.

Assemble a team for the auditions. A sign-in person, who may or may not be the person who scheduled actors' audition times. The director, the producer, a camera person if you're shooting auditions. And, an extra person who can read lines with an actor, if necessary. Plan for and manage your time so that your team can get actors in and out of auditions on a timely basis. Do your best to create an atmosphere of efficiency and respect, so that actors can give their best auditions.
  • If the director is inexperienced or uncomfortable with actors, s/he could benefit from auditing or taking an acting class.
To collaborate on a good performance, it helps for both parties to speak the same language. Learn what actors look for in scripts, in their roles. Learn their vernacular. The better to guide them (or get out of their way).

Thanks for the question, Alison!