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.

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