Moving Into Films: Part 3


Movie Business

I understood from the outset that movie business is business. If I wanted to minimize my chances of failure I needed to maximize my understanding of how the business of movie making works. I visited several popular independent film festivals in the Cleveland area. There was no shortage of filmmaking ‘wanabes’ (as they sometimes referred to themselves) in any city in America. It didn’t take long to realize that if I wanted to be successful with my first film I needed to do the opposite of what everyone else seemed to be doing. It sounds cruel to say this, but how many of these types of independent films have your seen in your neighborhood theatre?

A couple of aspiring filmmakers I came into contact had been making their movie for over twenty years. The ones who had managed to make their movie showed it around town in local festivals but these movies went nowhere. Lack of money was ‘always’ singled out as the culprit of their failure. But as I viewed these films it soon became evident that, within their resources, the greatest single reason for their movies’ failure was the filmmakers themselves.

Other people can supply the money to make a film, but skill and talent no amount of money can buy. Lighting, sound, art design, editing are elements present in every movie, even no-budget movies. There is plenty of “know-how” information freely available to excuse filmmakers of incompetence in these areas. Regrettably many new filmmakers did not take the time to learn these skills (more than a few don’t like to read), a fact that was painfully evident on the screen. Their main concern, more than a few have confided to me, was “artistic vision.”

Acting, editing and direction are the other two areas where talent, in addition to skill and know-how, make a film noticeable. These areas are harder to come by because it cannot be learned from a book, even if one reads about it, though it doesn’t hurt to study them. Practice and experience can overcome many shortcomings and even I can overlook talent limitations when there is an effort to sustain good production values. However, the one single thing that a film absolutely cannot lack is -a good story.

Make a list of all the bad movies you have seen. Now look at the list and tell me what you see. How many were made by Hollywood studios? Probably all. How many had good actors and good directors? Many of them. How many feature big Hollywood stars? More than a few. How good were the special effects? For the most part, those that did have special effects, had great special effects. Did these movies look well financed? Undoubtedly. So, why did they stink? There is only one answer: bad stories.

I kept a mental file of the things I was learning through the experiences of others. I asked questions, wrote letters, made phone calls, checked out literature and visited film student hangouts. It took time but it was time well spent. Knowing the lay of the land you are planning to invade is common sense strategy. It gives one an idea of what you are up against and how to better prepare for the journey. As I processed and analysed this constant influx of information I managed to distil some valuable lessons. You may find them useful too, so I will share them with you.

Lesson One: the first step to success in filmmaking is having a good story --entertaining, interesting, and emotionally engaging; you have to make the viewer either laugh, cry, think or feel.

Lesson Two: a screenplay is the filmmaker’s storybook and roadmap; do not touch a camera until you have a decent screenplay.

Lesson Three: learn the “how” of movie making. One does not have to do it all, but know-how helps to direct those who do. It can also help you spend wisely and keep friends.

Lesson Four: make only the movie you can afford to make. If you lack the money to make the movie you envisioned, stop! Wait until you have what you need to do it right.

Lesson Five: a filmmaker is responsible for all the elements in his movie; everything is worthy of his attention.

Now, let’s assume you are a filmmaker who has just completed the next Gone with the Wind. Evert & Roeper are salivating with delight after you show them your masterpiece. So, how much money have you made so far? The answer: Absolutely nothing! You are actually in the red; you owe investors a lot of money, and they want it back –with interest (the nerve of some people)! But how can this be? Remember: Gone with the Wind under your arm is not producing anything until it is shown to a paying audience. So, this leads us to…

Lesson Six: movies makes money in exhibition. But before your work of art can be exhibited, it has to go thru distribution. ‘ Exhibition and Distribution’ is where filmmakers make money. And, this is big business. I learned that the great majority of filmmakers I talked to were so involved in trying to make their film (the creative side of filmmaking), that they forgot to plan ahead or planned with unrealistic expectations. They failed to do the homework. Big mistake.

Once I gained a decent understanding of filmmaking theory through study and research, and by analyzing the filmmaking scene around town, I was absolutely certain that I was going to make a movie. But first I had to learn the practical side of the filmmaking business from the top down. Was I selling out “the art” in filmmaking? Absolutely not! I am an artist, and, like most artists, I yearn for a receptive public that appreciates my hard work. But first, I was going to make a film that would please me, and if others were pleased as well, so much the better. However, I would take the time and care to do it right so that my film stood a good chance of doing well at the box office. I was not going compromise sound business practice with an uncompromising artistic vision.

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