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.