Jason Buff is a graduate of UNC Chapel Hill and founder of the Indie Film Academy. He started his career working in San Francisco and Los Angeles as a commercial DP and Director. At the same time, he worked as a professional script reader for Alliance Atlantis Communications. Follow Jason on Twitter: @indiefilmacdmy
(Note: I need to start this article out with a quick clarification. In this article I am discussing primarily producers who also plan to write and direct their own low-budget films. If you are a new writer and not in the Los Angeles area, a really good route is trying to join up with local filmmakers and build your resume with a screenplay that has actually been produced. Now, on to the article....)
There is a common myth among new filmmakers that the order of putting a project together goes something like this. You write a screenplay, raise funds, shoot, edit, and then go out and try and sell your film. Sounds logical, but it is also a recipe for disaster. Based on about 99% of the interviews I've conducted with successful filmmakers over the past three years, it's really not the way it's done at all.
There is a very important theory in the world of business called Proof Of Concept. It's a simple idea. It simply means that, before you spend all of your time and resources creating a product, you want to know if people are going to want it. For most of us, creating a film is probably going to take at least a year of our life from start to finish. And even though things are fun and exciting at first, there will come a point where it becomes a lot of very hard work. At almost every stage of the game, there are giant hurdles that you will need to overcome. Writing is hard, raising funds is hard, shooting is hard, editing is... well... I like editing, so we'll skip that. Then after all is said and done, you have to try and sell your film. If you haven't done your research early on, it is likely that at the end of this journey you will have a film that doesn't have an audience.
Another thing that always shocks independent filmmakers is how film sales actually work. Many of the things listed below will be the only parts of your film that potential distributors will even look at. At the AFM, for example, it's completely normal for distributors to purchase a film based completely off of the poster and the first 10 minutes. So, as strange as it sounds, the things you are creating here at the beginning of the process with very little investment, could actually be more valuable in the long-term sales of your film that the film itself.
So let me propose a slightly different order of development for your film before you ever even have a screenplay. We will assume you have the story in your head. Maybe as much as a few pages written. But the main thing is having an exciting premise that makes people want to know more.
1. Create A Poster
I have always recommended designing a poster as one of the first things you ever do when starting an indie film project. Why? Because it not only will show people what the concept is in a matter of seconds, but it will also make the project feel real. A poster should include two main elements... a picture that will be exciting to your target audience and a font treatment for the name of the film.
2. Spread The News
Once you have your poster, you can start making collateral materials, like Facebook and Twitter headers. You can post it to your various walls on social media. The less you say at first, the better. Let people's minds wander. What is this? You will notice that an energy starts to build. Your friends will probably comment... "What's this?" It takes a lot of work for people to become aware of a project, so the sooner you start putting things out the better. And this phase will lead to your next phase...
3. Pitch Your Story
Once people are aware of your project, pitch it to them. Just give them the quick concept. Imagine that the film has already been made and you have to give your friends a little two-sentence logline that will make them want to see it. There is a very important thing to keep in mind as you're pitching the idea. Be honest with yourself. There are, of course, going to be friends who support you and say "Awesome! I'd go see that." But you really need to find friends who will be honest with you and tell you the truth. If you can't pitch an idea that you and others around you would be dying to see, you need to rethink your concept.
Another way to get some brutal honesty is by putting your poster out on social media. Reddit is known for being pretty brutal, so if you really want to test an idea, go there and show your poster. Present it like it's already been made, but be kind of vague. You will pretty quickly know how the reddit crowd feels.
4. Check Available Resources
This is Indie Filmmaking, so I'm going to assume you're budget is pretty low. And by low I'm talking under 50k. So it's important to figure out what your free resources are. Do you have access to a unique location? Do you have a friend with a cool car? Are there geographical locations that could really make your production feel bigger. All of these things need to be considered to be utilized by your screenplay. The same goes for actors. If you have a group of actor friends, then write something with their personalities in mind. I hear so many stories of screenwriters creating stories out of the blue and thinking that producers will just be able to pull all of those resources together. It's OK for larger budgets, but not at this level. So find all of the cool things you can get and then create your story around it.
5. Crowdfund A Short Film Version of Your Feature
Let's start with a concept. A fisherman goes out with just a worm and wants to catch a giant fish. So first he catches a small fish, then uses that fish as bait for a lager fish and on and on. This not only describes how most filmmaking careers work, but how many individual films work. Start small, and constantly test. Once you have enough of your story, actors and locations ready...it's time to create a bite-sized version of your film. At this point, you hopefully have enough friends and family that you can raise a few thousand bucks. Let people know through social media that you will be doing a crowdfunding campaign and that you need their help. Create a video with all of your actors and tell your story as a filmmaker. Make people excited. Show your actors in costume. Give people a glimpse into what the story will be.
There is no better proof of concept for a story than a successful crowdfunding campaign. From there, you will create a scene from the film, mostly likely from the first act. It's important to remember, if possible, the short you are creating should be part of your larger film. Maybe an opening scene or part of a flashback. You will have to figure that out on your own.
I want to imagine one final concept related to funding for your feature. Imagine yourself sitting across the table from a number of people who have the means and interest to make your film. You sit there with a screenplay in your hand, telling them all of the amazing things that happen in the story. They listen patiently and then tell you they will be in touch. Chances are, they will pass. I've seen it happen 99% of the time.
Now paint another picture. You are at the same table. You have not only a kick-ass poster, but pictures of your characters in their costumes. You have beautifully lit stills from the shoot. You have thousands of people following you on social media and a mailing list related to the film. And, as you're pitching the idea to them, you say, "Oh, by the way, would you like to watch the first 10 minutes?" To make the pot even sweeter, you can tell them various awards that the short has won.
- More articles by Jason Buff
- Writers on Writing: Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winner 'Frozen River'
- Writers on the Web: An Intro to Web Series Distribution
Get tips on how to create the short film version of your feature in the on-demand webinar
Producing Your Short Film Script: Launch Your Entertainment Career as a Writer-Producer