How I Learned to Stop Whining and Love the Game

by Katherine Bruens

I work professionally as a Producer and Production Manager in the advertising industry and independent film world here in San Francisco. I am also one half of a partnership that has produced three micro budget features here. Rather than become frustrated that the market in San Francisco has demanded that I spread my attention between these three worlds, I’ve embraced this hybrid.  This market gives me a way not only to maintain my freedom to usher forward new personally driven works, but it also allows me to produce media through a broad spectrum of strategies, sometimes with vastly different amounts of money. What’s more, in the end these projects are all trying to achieve a similar result.

CXL, my partner Sean Gillane's and my current feature, is just starting its public life with a local premiere at the San Francisco Film Society’s Cinema by the Bay, while our first film Corner Store is delivering to its final distribution outlet with Hulu. Thus I feel I am in an interesting place to look both back and forward at our experiences producing and developing audiences for these local films in relation to the spectrum of possible strategies and budget categories I have been a part of professionally here in San Francisco.

The following is a collection of some of my thoughts and experiences dealing with how to produce a film by recognizing that yes, all projects need resources, but that while of course they can be purchased for money, they can also be developed through relationships and time. What's more, when money is lacking, and it always is, look to the potential value of the resources around you and the potential value you have to offer in the project itself.

From top to bottom and beginning to end, making a film takes a lot of resources, this we know. This is what makes the production process both so challenging and so potentially beautiful.  It’s important to remember that each project has a unique set of needs and resources, perhaps its best to begin thusly:

  1. Assess your resources and strategize the best way to satisfy those needs
  2. Choose a production style and timeline that accommodates the valuable resources around you (your own time and energy included)
  3. Offer what you have in exchange, which in many cases is a real stake in the project you are working on;
  4. Deal with the remaining hard costs applying all the same

Perhaps these are obvious when read, but I want to push the particular point of doing this as early as possible, especially when money is the resource most lacking.

A lot of the initial feedback for CXL has been anchored in praise over the uniqueness of the ideas and the success achieving these ideas in the final product. This praise is gratifying in part because the project was designed to do just that.

When we started CXL,  director Sean Gillane and I spent time examining the resources (money, time, relationships) that we had available to us and created a script and production strategy that utilized those resources, rather than chasing resources that we had no access to. By beginning this way we were able to ensure that this film would 1) be completed and 2) be completed to our standards and expectations.

Still from CXL

Perhaps a micro-budget example will help to illustrate the point:

I want to make a narrative feature and know I don’t have the money to pay for a casting director and subsequently to pay my talent. Do I a) give up and cast myself knowing I have no training, or b) go to a local theater performance and scout for talent that would be interested in working with me for the experience? By choosing the latter, I have used my time and relationships to get my film the talent it deserves and have substituted time and relationships for money. Moreover, in order to cast this highly capable actor as the lead in my film, I need to ensure that he can fit our production schedule into his life without being financially affected. My calendar will need to shift to make sure that the value of this relationship afforded me can make it to the screen.

The process repeats itself with locations, crew and post-production personnel.

At this point another distinction must be made that applies to micro-budget, but perhaps just as much to Low-Budget as well. There is a world of difference between calling up, say, a director of photography and asking if they can come work for 30 plus days for you on your feature for free, versus grabbing a coffee with someone who is a shooter whose work you love and saying “I have this project and I’d love to show you the script and see what you think.”

You have a project that is empty of personnel and hungry for the checks and balances a creative team should give it. Why not approach someone with a blank canvass of possibility? How would they like to be involved? What do they think your project could value from?

If you have an LB or ULB project keep in mind any added value you can give your team by inviting them to be part of a collaboration. This will supplement the drop in pay they will ultimately need to agree to and will help you assemble your human resources while improving your film in the end. I can tell you from experience that nothing will piss off your crew more than treating them like hired help when they came on despite the rate for the love of the game.

Still from CXL

Even in advertising I can approach crew for a job and ask if they can help make my budget work in this or that way if, say for example its a new client for them and they feel as though helping out will help them get more work in the future.

When indie filmmakers get wind of what commercial budgets are like, it can be a shocking and sometimes infuriating experience. But when I have the opportunity to look back on this spectrum of production, it is no surprise that commercial budgets could have me spending 500K on a couple of days of shooting. This content has to be delivered in breakneck speeds. With weeks or even days to assemble what without money could/should take months, the cash keeps things moving. Oh yeah, and the client gets the final word.

So what of the hard costs in indie? When I began Corner Store, all I had was my time and access to a subject I was sure would make a wonderfully interesting documentary. After my own ducks were in a row I reached out to two parties, a camera owner to help me shoot some test footage, and a friend interested in film who had a history of event coordination. Both became interested in their own right and organically became part of the team. With that I could begin to create the infrastructure to help us raise the money for the hard costs of equipment and our travel costs to Palestine.

The same principles apply to your supporters as when assembling your production team. I have the great pleasure of being able to say that in our two largest live fundraising events for Corner Store we were able to raise first $6,000 in one day and subsequently $12,000 in one day to supplement the thousands we continued to raise along the way on and offline. I could write a lot on how this was accomplished, but one thing I can say here is it was not done by expecting that people would care about my project and sitting back to let the funding come to me. The burden was on me to create relationships with leaders in communities I felt would see the most value in what I was doing and, just as with my crew, showing them how their help would be crucial to what would become our shared goal.

By allowing them access to the creation of the film I was inviting them to share in the subsequent feelings of success. What's more, by treating each and every person like a member of our team by the time the film was released we had supporters there to fill every theater and feel as though they were part of the collective effort to push the film out into the world.

All of this, as previously stated, is the beauty and the burden of film. Even as I’m sure my future experiences will more clearly mold these ideas and I can only hope will usher in many more, at this particular vantage point I wish to highlight two main take aways:

  1. When you want to build something, anything, a strategy should take precedence above all else. This seems inordinately obvious when applied to most industries, but should be considered just as important in the creation of the most collaborative art form available.
  2. Money is just one kind of resource, and I’ve never seen any production be successful through money alone.

Katherine Bruens is a local Producer and Production Manager in both Advertising and Independent Film in San Francisco. Her directorial debut Corner Store, a documentary feature, gained a strong local following and enjoyed glowing reviews from local news outlets as well as the New York Times. With Corner Store in distribution internationally and a digital deal with Hulu in the works, she is focusing her energy on partner Sean Gillane's and her current feature, CXL while beginning to develop their next project with their ever growing San Francisco team.