Filmmaker Tom Wilton shares five things to consider when money enters the picture of your own filmmaking career.
No budget to Low budget filmmaking is where many in the industry get their start. Whether it’s student films or simply a bunch of friends ambitiously looking to produce a film, it can be a bit of a shock when you’re finally hired on for a professional job with a budget. So filmmaker Tom Wilton has detailed five things to consider when money becomes a factor in filmmaking.
Checking in with yourself, asking just why you’re making a project is always important — no matter what the budget.
But when there’s a sudden influx of money, that inevitably means other people also — and everybody is going to have their own agenda — which is often not just about profit.
From the kudos of working with a certain actor, to the potential of awards, in most situations, producers on a film have much of the same aspirations as you do. But that also means they’ll have their own ideas on how to make it happen — and if you’re not prepared to take on board their way of thinking, you might not be ready to make this project. Or at least, not in this way.
You see, everybody talks about compromise in filmmaking, but when you’re used to working alone, you don’t even think about the alternative ways to get things in the can. Sure, you might have been broke doing it — struggling to feed your crew, but much of the decision making was expedited because there was just you and a handful of others in your brain-trust. Things happened with little friction, because you didn’t have money-people (and money-people problems) jamming up the joint.
But of course, that move-fast pace is one of the first things you’ll likely surrender when working at a new scale.
Suddenly, your film relies on the decisions of a lot more people — and they’ll all have their own opinions and ideas to bring to the table, so you’d better develop a thick skin.
From investors to cinematographers, producers to actors, everybody else’s voices need to be heard for them to feel confident in the project. And if you’re not ready for the experience of being surrounded by all these pro’s, telling you exactly what they think, it can very quickly knock your confidence, making you feel like you’re treading water whilst being surrounded by sharks.
So before you bring these faces aboard, take a beat — consider the film — is this really the right one to go to bat for over and over? Because if you want to see it made, you will most likely have to. And all the time knowing that your story might take a beating on the way.
If this project (or indeed you) are not ready for the going-over it’s going to receive, shoot it yourself in much the same way you’ve always done. When you ask people for money, they don’t just give it to you. That’s just not how the industry works. People will ask about their ROI (return on investment) prospects, or insist that you take a screenwriter credit so they can attract a bigger name director, all in order to secure that finance. All of this (and more) will likely come up, so you’d better be sure this is the journey you want to go on. If it’s not, then go make your movie in the same old way you always have — by hook or by crook.
If, however, you’re tired of that process, and know that you’re ready to graduate from the no-budget world, then make sure you have something brilliant, something will be worth the battles and will be impossible for even the most cynical producer to walk away from. If you’ve got that, then you have a fighting chance of getting it made.
You’re in the room for a reason, so you have something to say, but so will everyone else.
Something that took me by surprise when I first started to work within these bounds was how similar I actually was to everybody else — at least in terms of goals, ambition and resourcefulness.
People get to where they are for a number of reasons. If you’re sat in front of them, chances are they’ve often been in your shoes, on a similar journey as you. Sure the details may be different, but they’ll recognize that naïvety and the hunger. Remember, everybody starts somewhere. And while your similar experiences are invaluable, so are your differences. They will have experiences and access that is new to you, but you’ll have the hunger that they may have long forgot. Finding harmony in your working relationship is invaluable, and it comes from listening and trusting each other.
One last key thing when it comes to talking about what you’ve achieved already is recognizing your own false wisdom. Of course there’s the temptation to say ‘I know how to do this for no money,’ especially if negotiations get tense. But remember, doing it on a sizable budget, that’s what these guys know how to do, and so nobody really cares if you can work for nothing — that just simply doesn’t scale.
On my very first experience of working with producers on a budget projected north of a million dollars, I was naïve. When they told me that they loved draft two (essentially draft one, but with most of the typos nixed), I thought that was it. Here I was, ready to board the train to an easy life as a filmmaker, dreaming of always having projects financed, not a care in the world. But by draft 13, I was about finished, tired of the constant, ‘I think we’ll be there on the next one’ lip service.
Rewrites are hard. Really hard. Being asked to go back into the pages over and over, to redress a line here, a sentence there — or worse — a whole act, it’s mind-numbing. Sure, the first few times you’ll be geared up for it, but to keep reopening the laptop, hacking away over and again, it can be miserable work for a writer.
Additionally, if you’re working with multiple producers, you’ll nearly always get conflicting notes — some telling you to save the cat, others telling you to let the thing drown. Sometimes, simply knowing what is the right thing to do is, well, it’s not that simple.
And of course, who is to say that any of the changes will actually make the end film better? Nobody knows — it’s all guess work and ego-huffing, and that’s just something you have to accept.
Still, developing some tools to deal with script meetings and notes before the fact can definitely make life easier. Personally, I always wait to see if the same note comes up twice. That might be difficult to gauge if you’re doing an in-the-room meet, rather than getting point-by-point written notes, but listen out for it. If one producer says that you need to change what happens in scene two, and somebody else says that your protagonist needs to be more interesting within the opening beats, that’s probably the same note, just expressed differently. Of course, it could just as easily be misinterpreted as such, and so it’s helpful to stop people and ask for clarity. Then when you’re sure of what they’re saying, don’t be afraid to challenge them. They might be right of course, but it’s worth verbally running the note back, especially if you know it’ll have some consequence on the story further down the line. Explain clearly if you see something that they haven’t already and you might just be saving a wholeother round of notes.
Of course, the key to successful script meetings is they’re not meant to be passive. If you go in believing simply the ‘producer knows best’, and you walk away quietly to make those changes, you’re cheating yourself and everybody else. You’re the screenwriter. You know this story better than anyone else, so it’s vital that you show up with your knowledge and understanding, ready to listen and share.
Again, a good producer will have the same goals as you, and so this process can often be a very creative one. But if you’re not already sure of what the producer’s goals for the movie are, now is the time to ask. If they want to put a shootout scene in the third act, it might be that it’s vital to selling the film to a certain demographic, rather than strengthening your story. You need to know what the thinking is in order to best deal with the idea, and so understanding why they want to make this script means that you can better deliver on it.
Lastly, on the actual physical process of rewrites, be sure you’ve got all your ducks in a row.
Usually, rewrites are a part of a writer’s contract — especially if you’re working on a union gig. This means you get paid to do write not only the initial screenplay, but also subsequent rewrites. Ensure that it’s in your contract, and that you know what the compensation is. Pages take time, so be sure that you’re being compensated for the process.
Of course, like any job, there will be performance expectations on you — most notably a delivery time. This is where having your voice and intentions clear in the script meetings really matters; you need to be sure you can absorb the changes and give an honest delivery time. It might be days or weeks, but either way, you know how long it’ll take, so be clear. There’s always a temptation to people-please of course, but if it’s a month you need, but they’re asking for a week, be honest and reach for a compromise. This approach will always pay dividends, especially if you do end up pushing 15 drafts.
Again, you know you could shoot this in two weeks, but they’re forecasting six. It can seem insane of course, but often, it’s for good reason. Folks who’ve been in the business for years are often some of the best talent you’ll find. They’ll also likely be in unions, and that brings it’s own set of restrictions and requirements.
Setting up a film — even after the financing is in place — takes time. Contracts need to be negotiated, schedules chalked out. When you bring on talent, usually, you’re working on their timeline, and so everything has to balance around that.
In this business of personal relationships and complicated networks, deals are done over lunch, actors are signed over drinks. It moves gently because anything can break, and nobody wants that to happen.
For an outsider stepping in, patience is what you’re going to need. That, and the ability to sustain the hunger. It’s not easy of course — filmmaking is an itch that needs to be scratched — but staying safe in the knowledge that the end result will be worth it, that’s what keeps so many of us moving. Of course, waiting can be anxiety-breeding, and every time your screenplay goes to a new actor, you have to really sustain your patience. A week or two of shot nerves and big hope, crossed fingers and the giddy realization that ahuge star is reading your screenplay — it’s exhausting. You try not to get woozy on the idea that they know your name (even if it is by proxy), and worse, that there’s a tiny, tiny chance that you’ll be taking selfies on set together someday soon. And indeed, how the hell do you not post about it on Facebook?
I get it. Creating a film that is about more than just you and some friends going away for a week can be, quite simply, a mad/intense experience. But you have to keep checking in with the reality that these people just want to work and also to be recognized — just the same as you. So try to detach a little from the heart-pounding fear elements (what if they hate it? What if they hate you for writing it?) and laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. Trust me, it’s healthy to disengage from the intensity, especially when you have along wait ahead.
Here’s the sobering truth — most films fall apart when they’re trying to get made. The reasons are long and varying of course, but when you have so many moving parts (and often-inflated egos), it’s a miracle that anything gets made. Money is hard to secure, interest is difficult to sustain. And if your film collapses under the weight of it all, that’s OK! It’ll be joining some of the best missed opportunities the world has never seen, and don’t forget, development hell is filled with some of the finest movie scripts yet to be shot.
The truth is, if a movie collapses (as happened to me in fact), you get to soak up the experience of it all. Despite the best laid plans, it just didn’t work. Maybe that was you, the script or simply those around you, whatever it was, you just got the best lesson in how the movie business works — one they can’t teach you at film school. Sometimes, things just don’t go the way you planned, even with the greatest team around you.
It’ll burn if it happens (I hope it doesn’t of course). But instead of letting it drag you under, be resourceful. Either bring the project to someone else (working off the movie’s cache so far), or do it on your own. Again, by hook or by crook, right? And if you do find yourself starting over, lining up a shoot on a meagre budget, take the knowledge you’ve gleaned, leveraging it to shortcut around your prior mistakes and be clear about what you want. Sure, it sucks to have to go back to lugging cameras when you had dreams of being limo-driven to the red carpet, but remember, none of it is real unless you make it happen. It’s better to resuscitate your own project, reestablishing it on clearer terms, than it is to make a film you eventually despise. Besides, a resourceful filmmaker always finds fresh opportunities instead of wasting energy on the dead ends.
You can find out more about Tom Wilton at www.ProjectBootleg.com