Twenty Tips For Packaging Your Project Successfully

On Monday September 17th, Jay Van Hoy and I had a public discussion for IFP's Independent Film Week on how to package your film.  I drafted this post up to help prepare me for the discussion.

Producing requires that you look beyond your own projects and looks at how you build it better for everybody. I frankly don't have respect for producers who only work on their projects. I want to know they give back to the community in general.  That does not have much to do with packaging frankly, but it is why I write this blog.

To that end, I want to share with you my thoughts on how to package your film in such a way that your film will gather momentum, get made, and succeed in the marketplace.  I have come up with twenty  points.  I wanted to know what I forgot, so I hope you add to the list.

  1. Recognize what you are doing when you package a project.  You package a project because you want to finance or sell your film.  You put actors in it not just for the creative enhancement, but also for the financial benefit.  If you fail to make the movie or to use the actors well, you devalue them in the market place.  That's a HUGE risk for them.  It's not true that if an actor attaches herself to the project and it doesn't get made, no harm is done.  Attaching an actor exposes them to the marketplace -- and kind of checks their value.  If a project an actor attaches himself to does not get made, it appears that buyers are not interested in them (because they presume that audiences does not value them).  By attaching actors to your project, you are risking their career.  Do not even approach them, until you are can demonstrate to everyone around them that is not the case.
  2. Develop a positive reputation for consistently delivering films of quality and acclaim.  It may sound like a Catch 22, but if you want to make movies, you have to make movies (or work with people who do).  If you want to work with the best, you have to demonstrate you are one of them.  The best way to get a script read is to have been associated with other great scripts.  The work you do today is really work you are doing for tomorrow; it's all part of the chain.  If you develop a positive reputation things will go better for you than if you develop something to the contrary.  That common sense somehow has not stopped the business from being filled with jerks and hot air, but if employed (common sense that is), it will pave the way towards easier packaging.
  3. Respect agents and their time.  Don't harass them.  It is an art learning how to get things done and move things ahead, without annoying people.  Actors and agents have 1000s of submissions.  And that's just every day.  You want to learn how to make everyone want to take your calls.  Balance calls with emails.  Recognize that they have staff meetings on Mondays.  Recognize that weekend reads are generally fully decided by Thursday.  Don't expect top agents to read your script until covering agents and junior agents have already raved about them.  Do you homework.  Prepare.  Be ready before you act.
  4. Build relationships.  What you do today, helps you tomorrow -- even if you do not know what tomorrow will bring.  Strong relationships with agents and managers  -- and actors -- are the best thing you can do for packaging your project -- even when you don't yet have the project you are going to be packaging.  You want to make the agents want to work with you.
  5. Finish your script.  Get it under 115 pages.  Hell, get it under 110.  Or even shorter.  70 is the new 80.  Don't fudge the standard conventions.  Fix the punctuation.  Make sure the emotional beats resonate.  Make sure the moments of the characters' transformation are clear.  Make it a fun and easy read.  You get one chance.  Don't fuck it up.  Once you know you are done, you still should cut another 10%.
  6. Enhance your project beyond your script.  A good script is not enough.  When you submit a script for consideration, you need to have more than a script ready. Your director should write a personal letter to the actor in advance.  Ditto on her director's statement. You should create an image book, mood reel, or anything that will further enhance the clarity of the creative vision.  Make sure your team makes sense for this project.  Know whom your other cast ideas are. Scout.  Budget. Storyboard.  Build the transmedia extensions.  Whatever it takes and then do some more.
  7. Build respect & knowledge about your team.  This is most crucial about your director but it can equally hold true about your other collaborators.  If your director is not known, it is your job to get her known.  There is no excuse for not having prior work to show.  These days a short can be made for next to nothing. Why will talent's gatekeeper let them work with your director?  Demonstrate their talent.  Get endorsements from festivals and other tastemakers. Help your directors build a presence in social media. If you want an actor to commit to your project, you need to give them as many reasons as possible.
  8. Have money, or at least make it plausible that you will.  No one is going to attach themselves if they don't think the movie will get made.  Financing is key to this, but it is not the only thing.  Your track record, or your team's track record goes a long way.  If you don't have one, attach someone that does before you approach talent.  Don't claim you are going to make something for more than seems reasonable for the subject matter and your level of experience -- they won't believe you will ever get it done.  Having sales agency or talent agency representation can help in this regard, as it shows that proven entities believe their is business to be had, but this too is sort of a Catch-22 -- for them to get behind it, they want to have cast attached, generally speaking.  One of the reason the industry is filled with charlatans, is that they serve the purpose of standing in the for the money.  By claiming they will back your project, the fakers give you time to find the real money (if you are so lucky).
  9. Build consensus around the project in advance.  Don't start at the top.  Build support.  Package a team.  If you are a new filmmaker, bring someone with experience on early.  Submit your project to script labs and other support mechanisms that lend your project credibility.  Find passionate advocates for your work and use them.
  10. Offer roles actors want.  Actors like characters who transform over the course of the film. They like their characters to influence the action.  Actors like to work with other actors that they admire -- it can't just be their role that is good.
  11. Make it personal.  If you can get to an actor on a personal (i.e. non-business) all the better.  That is, all the better, but know that the agent is going to hate you and want to destroy you.  Why would an agent ever want their client to do something that they can earn a percentage on AND has the likelihood of diminishing their value if not ruining their career.  That said, because following the rules takes a considerable amount of time, I would probably always move to cast another actor's friends than hold out for the unlikely dream.
  12. Do your research.  Is the actor even available?  Do they like, or want to work with,  the other people attached to the project?  Will they be willing to travel where you are shooting?  Why would they like to do the role?
  13. Be prepared to answer all questions, particularly what the deal is.  Take the time to construct a couple of deals in advance, depending on how the negotiations go.  Know when you want to shoot, for how long, and where.  Know what you can provide the talent in the way of amenities.
  14. Patience.  Stars are busy people.  Their agents, managers, lawyers might be even busier.  If you are an indie producer, you are probably the busiest.  You know how you hate to be pushed? Well, think of that when you want to push.  Anyone you have heard of and want will probably take six weeks to get back to you.  On one movie of mine it took the actor a year; we actually had cast the role once, but the day her agent got back to me was the day the other actress fell out.  Be honest about the time you have with the agent, and then be prepared to increase it.  It is a good sign if they ask for more time -- it means someone's read it and likes it, so bite your lip and wait some more.
  15. Urgency.  The best thing you can do is have a start date.  Well make that: the best thing you can do is have a start date eight weeks out from now -- if you want to attract high caliber talent at a reasonable rate.  Of course that means you have already financed your project, so really now you are casting for quality or enhanced sales.  Still, without a start date, how do you create urgency?  Why do you need to create urgency?  What is the call to action?  If it is not urgent, how do you get them to focus.  
  16. Inevitability.  Inevitability is urgency's cousin.  Or sister. Brother?  Whatever it is, create that feeling around your project.  Inevitability, or a feeling something like it, makes things happen, and happen better.  How do you package that feeling around your film?  Most of the points on this list are about making your project feel inevitable.  The fuller something is, the realer it is.  You need to reveal the weapons in your arsenal.  Use everything you have to make it look likely to happen.  Have confidence, and instill it in others.
  17. Have something for everyone.  You have a series of audiences to engage with: collaborators, buyers, festivals, journalists, audiences, participants.  The people you bring into create the work with, will bring their own relationships and sizzle.  Many producers stop packaging when they get their actor who can bring the money.  You also need the one that brings security -- often an ancillary deal in a foreign territory; an actor on a prominent television show can help here.  You need actors who will get stories on different news platforms; rediscoveries (actors who were once stars) and hot up&comers (younger actors) help a lot in this regard.  It helps to fortify foreign value by casting a foreign star from a difficult or large territory.  Actors from different media can also expand your reach, i.e. bloggers, comedians, porn stars, youtube stars.  Get the picture?
  18. Package in a way that helps others connect the dots.  Actors get typecast because audiences grow accustomed to seeing them in a particular type of film and feel betrayed when they broaden their range.  Marketing gets difficult when you cast a comedian in a thriller.  The same is true for directors that have developed reputations.  If you are thinking outside the box, you need to figure out a pathway to lead others outside the box.  You can get to far ahead of the parade that the audience forgets you are leading them.
  19. Make it an event.  Movies a dime a dozen with no call to action to get the f up and off the couch.  Movies are not rare.  We have a grand abundance of them that we will never catch up to.  You need your  film to leap to the top of everyone's queue.  You must make your film an event.  Mickey Rourke playing Mickey Rourke The Wrestler in The Wrestler was an event.  Someone's return to the screen or their last role motivates an audience.  In direct contradiction to my prior point, sometimes an actor doing what they haven't is an event: Adam Sandler in Punchdrunk Love is an event, but not in Reign Over Me.  Transmedia and other extensions of a story world has the potential to do this.  I rushed to see The Master on 70mm (and was not disappointed).  Secret Cinema in the UK does this well.  We think of a lot of this as marketing, but I see early collaborations with key creatives as packaging too.
  20. Process & strategy.  This list is an attempt to help identify all that can be done to package a movie.  Once you have identified everything, you have to both figure out how and when to do each stage.  When I have built my materials that demonstrate the creative vision of the project, and I feel I have a firm understanding of the business potential for the project, and I feel my script is as good as I am going to be able to get it, I alert the agencies that we will be in town soon.  I send it all to them and set meetings.  They need to have a face to face with your director if they are going to endorse the project.  I know the whole packaging process is going to be a long haul.  I try to figure out things I can do along the way to keep it fresh, reinvent it.  Once something gets stale, you must transform it.