Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Newbie Reality Check

I almost didn't write this post because I know somebody will misconstrue it as an attack on indy films. It's not. I love indy films. Some of the greatest films ever made are indy films. What this post is meant to be is a warning to newbie writers, like myself, that an indy filmmaker can be anyone from Clint Eastwood to the guy who delivers your dry cleaning. That guy who delivers your dry cleaning may be making a rockin' good little film. It doesn't have to be huge to be good. But, know what you're getting yourself into.

Making an independent film requires taking certain risks. Getting involved with an independent filmmaker also requires taking risks. So far, those risks have never paid off for me. That doesn't mean I shouldn't take risks at all. It just means that I haven't been very smart so far about the risks I've chosen to take.

Hence, I impart my wisdom (or decided lack of it) to other writers.

It's not a game of chance. I hate that analogy. Sure, there's always a little bit of luck involved in most aspects of every day life. I'm lucky to find a good avocado in the produce aisle and I'll be very lucky to find flowers for my son's date to the prom because she hates roses and lucky me, orchids don't match her dress.

What kind of girl hates roses? The sicko.

What I'm talking about is, when choosing to work with an indy filmmaker, making a decision that requires processing calculated liability and effort against estimated benefits and gain.

Sounds like math.

I'm terrible at math.

Since this post has nothing to do with algebraic geometry, homological algebra, or functional analysis, I ought to be able to scribble out some kind of payoff in the next few paragraphs. If not, well, you know, I shouldn't have made the math comparison.

Almost anyone can be a filmmaker these days. Technology is increasingly accessible and affordable and even the high school kids in my small town are buying cameras and making their own films. I didn't say you can buy a camera at Walmart and make Star Wars in the garage, but you can probably make something like Thumb Wars in the garage with a camera, computer, a few friends and some good software.

I often hear that new writers need to become producers. I understand this advice. I do. I also understand and admire the commitment to film that drives a writer to undertake the enormous task of making his own film. But I don't want to make my own film. Orchestrating a film requires all those management and public relations things that take me away from writing and I want to write.

However, if a writer doesn't want to make his own film, there may be an indy filmmaker out there willing to make it for him. Did you see that word "may" and that other word "willing"? Those are very iffy words. Still, if the studios aren't parking private jets in your backyard and you don't want to make your own film, indy might be the way for you to go. They're more likely to read your spec and return your call.

The numbers of indy filmmakers out there are inestimable. Some are brilliant. Others aren't. Some have budgets. Others are honest about their lack of budgets. Many indies are recruiting writers with their tales of Hollywood contacts and millionaire financiers in foreign countries. Sometimes, these filmmakers want us to give away our specs for an executive producer credit. They may offer small options or purchases but often, it's all talk and that talk is paid for on our own phone bills. Some of these deals are worth it. Some are a joke. Not literally, but yeah, literally.

We newbies are easy to persuade. We want so much to believe that we're finally about to be recognized as the great artists that we surely must be that we're willing to give away a year or two of work for a shaky promise.

How shaky is too shaky for you? Too shaky for me might be just fine for you. It all depends on how much risk YOU are willing to take.

I've never seen anyone detail their indy disappointments online and I don't intend to detail mine but what I say here is from personal experience. I'm not taking this from a magazine or anyone else's blog. I've done some incredibly stupid things. I've also made some amazing contacts and really good friends by going down some indy paths. But, because I was given a reality check early on by a professional writer, I wasn't surprised when the disappointments came. I didn't like it, but I wasn't surprised.

So, if you are a newbie, this is your reality check. While you're weighing your options and calculating your risks, there are a few things you should know:

(1) Not all Hollywood contacts are valuable. I'm sorry. They aren't. Some of them are schmucks and liars and people living in Mommy's garage and using a borrowed cell phone. A single indy film credit on IMDB does not necessarily mean this person talking to you is a contact you must nurture. Have you seen the film? Is it something you would make? Is this a controlling, manipulative, or patronizing person that makes you cringe? Burning bridges is bad. Very bad. But you aren't a doormat either. You still have the right to say 'no'.

(2) There is no billionaire looking for a script to finance. There never is. What you will encounter are salespeople. Like you, they're looking for a break and they need you. You see, you're a writer and they aren't (stole that line from Joe Eszterhas). They're trying to make money off you. That's not necessarily a bad thing as long as you know that's what they're doing and as long as you realize that there's no financier in love with your work. Somebody is chasing a financial lead. That's it. That's all. If, even that much.

(3) People will try to get you to work for free. Trust me on this one. It will come in all kinds of disguises. It may come to you in the guise of a collaboration where you wind up doing all the work. It may even arrive as a big name Hollywood star looking for that perfect script and all you need to do is write a treatment. Hurry up. She's waiting for it! My foot. What you've got is a guy who knows a lawn man who knows somebody who is sleeping with a lady who knows where said A lister gets her hair extensions. I'm not saying you shouldn't collaborate with a writer you already know. Some of the most successful writers in the world are collaborators. I'm saying don't get buffalo'd into giving your work away. Even the smallest indy can pony up $250 for an option. (please don't take this as advice to opt for $250 - talk to your attorney or agent)

There are truly great indy films out there and somebody, somewhere, had to take a chance on them.

Be smart about which indy paths you take and KNOW now that you WILL take some wrong ones. Each day that passes, you have more research and resources available to you than the day before. That puts you at an advantage over people who had nobody to warn them. Every indy path I've gone down so far has been wanky. Every single one. But that doesn't mean I regret taking them. Okay, I do regret some of them. But it's kind of like math. I made sorry grades in every math subject I ever took in school. But, I couldn't get through life right now if I hadn't taken them.

Oh, and as for my son's date to the prom, these pics are from my yard. Last count, I had about fifty five rose bushes. Not smart, boy. Not smart at all. Talk about a risk taker. Dating a girl who hates roses? But, he's good in math.


Suburban Screenwriter said...

With the rose reference and all the pics of roses I was expecting some line about not looking at the world through rose colored glasses (in reference to indies) Good post MaryAn your advice is always duly noted. And that girl better be worth it Hell hath no fury like a Mom scorned ;)

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Always glad to avoid the expected.

The Moviequill said...

"homological algebra,"... I have nothing against a mathematician's personal lifestyle heh

okay, comedy part is over

great post m

Sal said...

I went down the "writer becomes producer" route to make my short - worked for me, and I loved the producing role, but I can see it wouldn't suit everyone. Still, it means I get to go to Cannes this year because I can put it into the Short Film Corner. Thanks for your comment, btw - am pretty excited about going

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Uber cool, Sal! Congrats! Enjoy Cannes. Expect to detailed posts about the whole experience!

Matt Hader said...

Trying to produce isn't for the faint of heart, agreed. If you're choosing the Indie route, be careful when making your producing partner choices.

But -- you may be missing one major it pertains to your screenplay and your writing in general.

Everything completely changed for me (for the better) when I began trying to get my own screenplays off the ground. I worked with an Indie producing partner and we began approaching well-known actors. What I discovered was this...I was getting read all over town by the actors agents and then, of course, the actors themselves. They liked what they were reading, and some of them began agreeing to get involved with our production -- even though they knew we didn't have all the money in place...

They were liking what they were reading and wanted in.

It wasn't a "ploy" to get read in Hollywood - it was simply an excellent byproduct of trying to get an Indie production off the ground.

I found my current agent while working a similar deal.

The reality is, most of the well-known actors will fall away from your project -- but you're still getting yourself out there. In fact, most major productions have people fall away all the time. That's the business...

Producing is scary. But, to me, putting in all the time and effort to write screenplay after screenplay without actively trying to get them produced is 'waste-of-time' scary.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Not having the money in place doesn't scare me. In fact, I do a lot of fundraising as part of my philanthropic alter-ego so I'm sure one day, I'll be doing that for a film. Today is not that day.

And, there are plenty of indy filmmakers that I gotta tell ya - I'm not fit to wipe their boots. I'd be honored to grab their coat tails. This is NOT about them.

This is about the ones who lie.

One of my favorite indy films is "My Date with Drew". Talk about commitment to what you're doing! This guy only has thirty days to make his film, get his date, and get his borrowed camera back to Circuit City because he can't afford to pay for it on the credit card he bought it with. Brian Herzlinger is brutally honest with everyone during the whole process (except when he sneaks in a premier) regardless of personal embarrassment and I'd sell a kidney to make a film with him.

Matt Hader said...

I liked that film, too. Doing it for the love of it - and hey, if money decides to come along for the ride, all the better.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Wait. I thought you were gone for a few days?

Matt Hader said...

That was last week...I'm back!