Everything I Know About Producing, Pt. 1

As you might know, I was in Sydney,Australia courtesy of Screen Australia to do a Two Day Workshop on Producing, entitled HopeForFilm. Screen Hub journalist Andrew Einspruch took careful notes -- and he and Screen Hub kindly agreed to share it with you.  Thanks.  Here's Day One:

by Andrew Einspruch

Let’s start with how the movie world has changed. As Ted Hope phrased it, the first hundred-plus years in the film world were marked by three characteristics that no longer apply. “The business was built around a belief in the scarcity of product, that we have to control where people see and engage with that content, and that the only way they will do is impulsively, without education or knowledge beforehand.” 

This antiquated model has fallen over. Today’s producer faces a world marked by three opposite characteristics; superabundance, total access, and informed choice. According to Hope, your movie is not just squaring off against 50,000 other features produced in the world annually (in a market that can handle, at best, around 500-600). Thanks to the digitisation of the world’s back catalogue, your humble film is also competing again Kurosawa and Fassbinder and Scorsese and all of the other greats (plus the not-as-greats) across time. That ignores the bazillion hours of material uploaded to YouTube with every breath you take.

Basically, you’re screwed.

Well, maybe not.

According to Hope, if you can rejig how you think about the work, culture, and about community, there is plenty of opportunity. If you target a narrower audience than is typical for the average Hollywood franchise, and address things that they want, and if you can reach them, then you have a chance. The idea of moving people from being an audience to being more of a community is a core concept. Think about the first screening of a new feature film. Who usually gets to see it first? Family and friends. And what is their usual response? It is warm and supportive, because that is how they want to treat you. So what about expanding this to a wider set of people? If you can engage your audience along the way, and make them more like your family and friends, then you can give them the same chance to embrace you and your work warmly when it comes out.

This idea is part of what Hope described as a new definition of what cinema is. An inveterate maker of lists, Hope gave 14 elements to what a modern definition of cinema (or the cinema process) should include, and that if you truly address all of these components, you would be making cinema for the current times. The first aspects are the familiar ones taught in every film school:

1. Development
2. Discovery (this is where the conversation about a film starts, the generation of audience awareness)
3. Production
4. Post -production
5. Marketing
6. Distribution

But the other eight are perhaps less obvious additions to the definition:

7. Engagement and aggregation, where you engage the audience and bring members of a community together.
8. Extensions, versioning and iterations, where you allow the film to evolve over time, and repurpose it for different experiences.
9. Participation with the audience, which is where you engage directly with your community.
10. Collaboration with other artists – think mashups.
11. Appreciation, where you can provide people materials that help them understand and engage with the film – a function that used to be the realm of critics, but has fallen away.
12. Presentation, where the film is changed to reflect the context where it is seen – think the difference between cinema viewing and mobile phone viewing.
13. Value , where the audience gets value from the film beyond mere distraction.
14. Transitioning and migration, where you take the audience member and move them from one experience to another, say from watching a documentary about an endangered species to actually doing something about it.

Hope also encouraged producers to think about how they fit into the world of film business and where their loyalties lie. Is it to the business? To culture? To themselves? To the film? To the community? Where your priorities are will affect what decisions you make, and how you engage with the filmmaking process.

Hope advocates this kind of self-knowledge as a key having a long, successful career in the business. “This is the most important advice I can give, and I am always surprised by how little it is done,” said Hope. “It has helped me tremendously to remain mindful in the intense chaos of getting your work made, produced, completed, and distributed. And that is, simply, trying to remember what it is you love about movies. What defines, for you, what makes a movie great, or better than the rest?”

This question lies close to Hope’s heart, as it was through the process of working out the elements of a great film that he fell in love with his wife. The result? Another list. Here are the first dozen elements on Hope’s own list, and you can see the rest in the article on Hope posted called 32 Qualities of What Makes a Good Film, where he goes into detail on each.

1. Ambition
2. Originality
3. Innovation
4. Integrity to the Concept
5. Discipline
6. Truthfulness
7. Joy of Doing
8. Singularity
9. Communication of Themes
10. Clarity of Intent
11. Synthesis of Style and Themes
12. Application of Techniques

The whole list is worth checking out, and provides excellent food for thought. But more than that, Hope uses these qualities as a way to work out what is going right or wrong on a project, as well as providing a foundation for his work in development.

Hope spoke at length about the various qualities that a producer needs, like the ability to manage relationships (whether with creatives, financiers, or sales agents and distributors). One key is to understand how to control the flow of information. Hope learned the value of this from producer Scott Rudin (The Social Network, No Country for Old Men), who often asks, “What good will come from doing this now?” Managing the flow of information can help create a sense of urgency around a project. Holding on to certain pieces of information (such as who might be attached to a project) can help you control the perception others have of what you are doing.

Returning to the quandary of how to produce in this era of superabundance, Hope spoke of retaining rights and addressing niche audiences. But doing so means the responsible filmmaker must work to lower budgets. That is because the returns, while more likely to flow to the producer, will be smaller than a Hollywood tent pole franchise. 

But how do you produce low budget features effectively? By understanding that micro-budget filmmaking is a different beast. You are not competing with Hollywood. You are going into different territory. In that territory, you have to work faster and smarter. Many, if not all, of your actors will probably suck, or at least be inexperienced. Your stories will be character-driven, and probably have a contemporary setting. You have to shoot very, very fast, using fewer takes and/or setups. And you have to learn to make assets of what others might see as liabilities (like flat acting or crummy sound or limited locations).

Here’s another list: >The Good Machine No Budget Commandments. Good Machine was Hope’s first company, and these rules help him guide micro-budget filmmaking:

1. Write to direct.
2. Write for what you know and for what you can obtain. 
3. Remain flexible.
4. Choose an aesthetic that will capitalize on the lack of money.
5. Don’t over strive.
6. Don’t limit yourself to too few locations.
7. Use everything more than once.
8. Write for a very limited audience – your closest friends.
9. Write to cut it back later.
10. Contradict the above commandment and only write what you know you absolutely must shoot.
11. Keep it simple.
12. Keep it intimate.
13. Make the most of a day’s work.
14. Ignore everything listed above if it doesn’t further the story.

The above points are fleshed out in the full article.

The age of superabundance also means that films can be different lengths. “70 minutes is the new 80, which is the new 90,” said Hope. Movies can be shorter, and we can leave behind the 90 minute construct, which Hope said was based on selling popcorn and what the human bladder could tolerate.
Hope is also a big believer in sharing, pointing to Hollywood’s tendency to celebrate success, hide failure, and hoard information. He noted that in other fields (like science), failure is a key part of eventual success. Scientists try things, make mistakes, and share their information so that science can move forward. “If we want to get it right, if goal is to get out of the situation we are in now where good movies don’t’ get seen, because that’s the fact, then we have to start to work together, make mistakes, share the information, and move it forward to find what the new model is,” said Hope.

He talked at length about how to get your script read, but prefaced his comments by asking why, in this day and age, you would want to have that happen. “Really, just go make it. You can make movies for $50,000. So why look for someone’s approval? You want to get a script read? Go make a movie. You should be making a lot of films. Go make your movie.”

Hope pointed to an article that set the tone called I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script by Josh Olson. Having said all that, know that someone like Hope gets five scripts or more a day, and that his house and office are littered with unread scripts. He suggest that if you want someone to read yours, you should first reach out to them through social media or blog commenting. Establish yourself as someone who is interested in who that person and what their interests are. Figure out how you might be able to help them, but at least recognise that they are a human being who is overwhelmed with scripts. Understand what their life is like. Do the work to get to know the person ahead of time, and then personalise your approach to them and treat them like a human being.

Oh, and use proper script layout (including font sizes and margins), grammar and spelling. It matters. 

Plus, shorter scripts are more likely to get looked at. Hope said he would read 80 pages before he read 120.

And don’t send cookies or be cute. That does not come across as professional.

Finally, there’s a word you want to build into your vocabulary as a producer: “inevitability”. Hope encouraged everyone to try to build in a sense of inevitability to their films, whether it is during development or packaging or financing. The feeling others should get is that this is a project that is going to get made, and that there is an opportunity for them to be part of it, but that won’t last forever.

How do you create that sense of inevitability? “Hard work,” said Hope. It is about being prepared, progressing the project, and having answers to the questions that might get asked. 
What does that hard work look like? There is no one answer, but it could include (but not be limited to) things like:

• Have look book.
• Have all of your short documents – log lines, one paragraph synopses, one-page synopses, three-page synopses.
• Shoot a mood reel.
• Know your ten preferred actors in order of preference.
• Have a film budget.
• Have film schedule.
• Have your foreign sales estimates.
• Know what kind of deal you want for the movie.
• Know what comparable films are out there are.
• Know your audience.
• Know what festivals you want to target, why, and in what order.
• Know when you want to shoot, and where.

All of these things can help create the sense of inevitability that others will find compelling.

This is the first part of a two part article by Andrew Einspruch for ScreenHub.  If you are a member of that organization you can read the whole thing here.

Screen Hub is “The daily online newspaper for Australian film and television professionals.” Their web site for the link is http://www.screenhub.com.au.

Andrew Einspruch’s indie Australian film company Wild Pure Heart Productions has created the feature film Finding Joy and the documentaries 2012: This Sacred Earth and 7 Days with 7 Dogs, and is currently working on the low budget feature The Farmer. Andrew can be found on Twitter as@einspruch and at andreweinspruch.com.