How To Make A Real Independent Movie
By Michael Scullion | 01-Apr-2006
To do anything worthwhile in life is a process and if you put your mind to it you can do it" That's what my dad used to say to me all the time when I was a kid. Well, turns out he was right. Everything I've encountered since the age of 18 from dating, going to university, working, playing professional soccer, making records, TV shows and finally a feature film is a process. What he forgot to tell me was how to execute the process. That came the hard way, from experience.
I never grew up thinking, "Oh I've just got to make a movie someday or I'll bust." Don't get me wrong; I've loved movies since I was a cheeky wee mucker in Ireland. I just thought that it looked like too much work and was content to pay my 10 bucks and get out without any responsibility to shareholders, studios, distributors and agents. Boy have times changed.
I recommend this to anyone. Before you make a feature film you should know why. You should know why you want to subject yourself to 2-3 years of hard work, dealing with over 200 personalities, getting slammed by critics and the people who say, "it can't be done," or "no-one would like that." Then when you do actually do it, the armchair critics who crawl out from under their beer cans and personal inadequacies to tell you in short precise statements,"it's crap."
So why would you want to make a feature film? Why did I? To be honest I seriously did not ask myself that question until after it was completed. It just sort of evolved, but now that I think of it, yes, who would want to have 200 people looking at you to tell them what to do and when to do it? Sounds good doesn't it? In reality it's terrifying at times. If you make the wrong decision, from the thousands you have to make, your goolies are hung out to dry. Too late, mine are swinging in the wind.
The reason I produced and directed a feature film in another country with my brother was simply to spend some time with friends being creative, do something I had not done-that's always the challenge in life, and of course, make some money. The last bit is probably the most important factor. After all, the people who put their hands in their pockets to help me conquer the challenge deserve to get their money back and more. If they don't, there go the goolies swinging in the wind again.
So what is the process? Well there is no process. There is no one way to do anything in life. Learn that; believe that and you can be successful. If I was to follow the Hollywood process the way the experts preach I'd still be churning out bastardized scripts, racking up phone calls, postage and all the other crap needed to impress some fat, lazy film executive who doesn't have a clue any better than my Mum on what is a good movie and what an audience wants - sorry Mum!
So I did it with my brother the Scullion way. My brother was a people person and he could sell anything. I guess that's why they call it the gift of the gab in Ireland. His job was simple-get the money. All I had to do was give him something to sell. So we created a video trailer of our idea. Why? That's simple: because 99% of people need something visual to represent an idea. If they can see it they can identify with it-or not. So that's what we did. We called all our soccer mates and shot a video trailer. We then presented it to all the people that my brother dragged into a theater. You know what, it worked. From that we were able to get commitments for hiring a crew and equipment. Oh, one small problem-we didn't have a script. That didn't worry me though, we had an idea and I wasn't about to spend God knows how many hours creating a 120 page script without some chance of it actually getting made. Six months later we had enough money to shoot, but nothing more.
There wasn't enough to develop the film or do post production but I had enough confidence in brother to know he'd get the money. We did have a script and two great actors who signed on. Andy Curtis from One Yellow Rabbit Theater Company and Brendan Dempsey from Waking Ned Devine, Gangs of New York, and About Adam among others. So off to Ireland we went.
We had a tight 24-day shooting schedule, 65 actors and 100 extras. The days were 18 hours at least, the tensions flared but the creativity flourished. We had our film "in the can" as they say. Now what? Well fortunately we had a plan in place. Contact distributors -by the way in his seminars Dov Siemens says if you make a film the distributors will come, just like in Field of Dreams. He's right, but not as many as you might think. More on that later.
My brother kept raising the money and pretty soon we were almost at $300,000. That was our initial budget. We developed and transferred the film to a digital format so that I could edit it at home. The film transfer cost us about as much as a new Beamer. Once it was transferred I created a new trailer and my younger brother, Stephen, who is website genius designed the website. (www.gobshitemovie.com)
We launched the site and started shopping the trailer. All the while I was editing and composing the score for the film. Meanwhile Kevin was raising more money. As a result of attending the "Banff Pitch Fest" we signed an agent and signed a partnership deal with Mike Frislev of Nomadic Pictures. Mike and his partner, Chad Oakes, had won three Emmys and were well respected in the industry. They were able to find a UK partner "Hannywood Studios" from Edinburgh, Scotland to kick in a pile of cash to finish the film in style.
There comes a time in this business when you will be asked to turn some control over to other people. This is a double edged sword and I was asked to do that by the UK investors. I suppose when you kick in 1/2 a million you have that right but I had my reservations. I mean I wrote it, directed it, edited it and wrote the majority of the music. It was my baby and this would change everything, I would lose some control. So I took some time, slept on it and reminisced about when I was making records back in the early 90's. I even pulled out a few of the old songs trying to remember the process. Then it all became clear. Every time I collaborated with my music the songs were better. Each individual brought something unique to the production process. That's when it occurred to me that making movies and making records have a lot of parallels and this could probably turn out better.
I looked at a rough of the new cut done by a new editor and listened to some of the score composed by a new composer and it was fantastic. What would I have done if it wasn't fantastic? Well, that's why you get it in your contract that you have final approval. Fortunately, all the people involved from the start of Gobshite who have attached themselves to this project have helped take the film to a new level.
While working on the finished product we conducted seven screen tests and implemented every consistent comment by the average viewer. In my opinion they are the most powerful influence to a film. We played a version after five edits at the Calgary International Film Festival, sold out 400 seats and turned away 200 disappointed more. What was amazing was to see an audience of mostly strangers react to the movie in the way we had hoped. They laughed at all the right places and cringed at all the gruesome violent scenes. Oh, yeah critics hated it. What a surprise.
The next step was getting the distributors. That turned out to be the biggest surprise of the whole process. I don't mean it was hard, I mean that these multi billion dollar companies, who supposedly have their fingers on the pulse of the movie going patrons could not make up their minds.
We had Miramax, Alliance Atlantis, Odeon, Vertigo, and many others on a smaller scale tell us "no, we pass," only to call back three and four times and ask to see it again. A few even asked how much we wanted for it. One nameless large company agreed to a contract, only to change their mind a few days before the contract was to arrive. Now I've taught grade five students for years and I can safely say they have more decisive sense than some of these people.
So what was the main reason for the indecision? Well, it was because our main star, Andy Curtis, wasn't a recognizable name. Oh, his performance was touted as brilliant, but they didn't think the movie going public would take a chance on an unknown actor in a lead. Duh! How many little movies have done quite well thank you without name stars? Can you say Napoleon Dynamite? I guess they believe the paying public isn't smart enough to enjoy a film without a Brad Pitt.
This went on for about a year. Last November at AFM we sold the film in five countries outside of North America. The big name companies called again. They would like to review it once more. I didn't hold my breath. Just as well. The answer was the same, "if only you had a Star!"
So my advice to the up and coming movie makers out there is, before you raise a million dollars, hire a crew, or even write a script make sure you plan for a name actor. If you do you'll sell it everywhere. They'll even buy it without watching. If you don't have the name actor, you still have a chance at festivals, unless of course your film is commercial. You might get very lucky and get a distributor to take it on without a star but you really have about a 1 in 10,000 of getting them to take a chance on an indie with no American stars. Remember we had Brendan Dempsey. He was in a few decent sized movies and had just played six months on stage in London with Christian Slater. That accolade was not big enough.
Maybe I should have paid more than a few pints and two-foot long sandwiches for a name actor. By the way, our star worked for $9,000 because he believed in the movie and the indie process.
The post production budget cost in excess of $500,000. We even transferred the film to HD D5, the highest digital quality. As good as 35mm film or so they say. One thing they forgot to tell us was that very few theaters are set up for digital projection. There's one in Western Canada, maybe a hundred in the United States. Europe is a little further ahead. We looked into transferring from HD to 35mm. It cost $46,000. We should have bumped to 35mm originally as it wasn't much more.
One thing I'll say is that making this film the indi way has enabled me to improve my skills in two areas, the creative aspects and the crucial business aspects. Oh you need the creative, for sure, but without some solid business forethought you'll just piss that creative masterpiece away.
I guess my Dad was right about the process. When I asked him recently about why he didn't tell me the process he simply said, "every process is what you make of it." Hope I didn't make a balls of this one.
Our film will be released in one Landmark Theater on St. Patrick's Day, March 17, 2006. Who knows, it might pick up some steam from there. If not it will be one hell of a piss up after party. Oh yeah, you can rent it this year in the UK. Australia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Thailand and your friendly neighbourhood video store, hopefully!
Hey, this was a really interesting read! It was cool to hear an honest and well told account of the indie movie making process. Thanks! -Nick
I am late in my 40's starting my first film, buy or bust. I am doing it because I can and not for anyone else but me. I found long ago. Passion is not what in what we do, its why we do it.
If you want people to take you and your project seriously, the easiest way is to get a name actor attached. This is easier than you might think. Use IMDB Pro to locate contact information for actors who routinely act in you project's genre. They do not have to be A-listers for people to take you serious, any recognizable name will work. We just finished our second low-budget feature and now have financing for our third. Attaching a recognizable name is one of the first things we do. If you want more information visit us at http://indiemoviemaking.com
Thanks for this article.
I'm determined to make a feature film for my senior thesis, and I think your piece has helped brace me for what I'm about to do.
Do you have any advice for the student filmmaker?
Such as, as a student, how can I have people take me and my work seriously?
Is being a student an advantage or a disadvantage in the film industry?
I hope you the best of luck in whatever your doing now, or next.