STOP WITH THE PROSE, ALREADY

Fairly frequently I’m given an unsolicited screenplay to read, to consider directing, or to give my two–cents on.  I try my hardest to not read any of them.  But every now and again, curiosity takes hold, and I’ll open one up.  Sometimes the scripts are filled with spelling errors, stilted dialogue, boring scenes, you name it, but there is one mistake I see most often across the board: too much ink on the page and not enough white space.

Screenplays aren’t novels.

The purpose of a screenplay is entirely different than that of a novel.  I could go as far as to say screenplays aren’t even meant to be read.  I know that might sound weird.  But, think about it.  What is the purpose of a screenplay?  Screenplays are meant to be spoken, heard and watched.

Screenplays are a map.

They should be made up of great dialogue, with brief descriptions of specific actions that happen when nothing is being spoken.

I agree that scripts should include some prose to set the tone and hint at the atmosphere, but my advice is to keep it light.  We do not need to know the year, make and model of a car, or learn about the squeaky door, or the broken windshield wipers.  We just need to know it’s an old, shitty car.  Allow the reader to imagine whatever they want.  Even then, their imagination will hinder how they interpret your story.  No one will totally “get it” until they SEE it.

In Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, he writes:

CUT TO:
Young Alvy at the food-stand concession watching three military men representing the Army, the Navy and the Marines arm in arm with a blond woman in a skirted bathing suit.  They all turn and run toward the foreground.  The girl stops before the camera to lean over and throw a kiss.  The sign over the concession reads “Steve’s Famous Clam Bar.  Ice Cold Beer,” and the roller coaster is moving in full gear in the background.

That would be much easier to read if it looked like this:

EXT. STEVE’S FAMOUS CLAM BAR – DAY
Young Alvy watches three military men arm in arm with a woman in a bathing suit.
They run towards us.
The girl stops to lean over and –
throw us a kiss.
The roller coaster is moving in the background.

By adding more white to the page, we’re able to move through the description faster, getting back to the dialogue.  Some might argue that Woody Allen’s prose adds a different kind of atmosphere than mine does.  I say that in either case, no one watching the film will ever know how it was written.  And not everyone making the film is going to imagine that shot exactly as the director will see it and film it, so it doesn’t matter.

When you’re watching a movie you can’t read what the script says.  So why not keep the paper light, effortless and easy to use?

If there is something visually specific in your screenplay that you’d like to communicate to the reader, my advice is to attach a visual design book to accompany the script.  Sometimes I’ll include storyboards, costume designs, even hairstyles.  For my film FIRECRACKER, I even incorporated images into the screenplay and provided music to listen to while reading it.

Most people in the Industry will tell you never to do that.  But don’t listen to them.  They’re just stuck in a box.  Do what YOU want.  I did it, and it worked.  Shortly after sending my FIRECRACKER script to him, Dennis Hopper called me up personally and invited me to his house.  When I was there Dennis told me he wanted to be in the film and added, “This is one of the best screenplays I’ve ever read.”

I’ve read dreadful screenplays that made spectacular, dazzling, poetic movies, and I’ve read brilliant screenplays that have made terribly uninteresting movies.  At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the illustration of the vision, the poetry of the dialogue and performers who can nail it.

The Wamego Trilogy

To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of its initial release, I am making the WAMEGO TRILOGY available for FREE on Vimeo.  Spread the word and share these documentaries with every filmmaker (aspiring or professional) you know.

“Dreams are made of this stuff… Missing here are power-lunches and power-trips. Which is a breath of that fresh Kansas air.” – AFTERTASTE MAGAZINE

“Perfect! If you’re an aspiring filmmaker, you’d be a complete fool not to watch all the docs in this trilogy… There’s a lesson to be learned from the Baldersons.”
FILM THREAT

“Hollywood should be jealous.” – ICON MAGAZINE

“Literally thousands of miles away from the world of red carpets, cocaine nose-jobs and botoxed to the bone, anorexic 40-year-old women pretending to be 21, Wamego is a world full of cinematic dreams and devoid of pretension.”
HOFSTRA CHRONICLE

“Steve Balderson’s approach to his work is not just a breath of fresh air – it is a gale-force wind that just may huff and puff and blow that famous Hollywood sign down right before the film industry’s eyes.”
OREGON DAILY EMERALD

“A constant reminder to never give up or give in…”
ALL ABOUT TOWN MAGAZINE

“WAMEGO is a testament to the hard work ethic of the Midwest. It proves that with determination, anything is possible – even making a feature film by yourself, in the middle of nowhere!”
LAWRENCE JOURNAL-WORLD

“What was ‘Lost in La Mancha’ could easily be ‘Found in Wamego’ … A warmfelt, honest lesson how to realize your dream without sharing a bed with the devil.”
PLANB MAGAZINE, NORWAY

“Balderson serves a fat slice of humble pie to his Hollywood peers. A reality-check to inspire indie artists worldwide!”
THE BLACKSMOKE ORGANISATION, UK

“Those who have filmmaking ambitions of their own will get a little more…”
MICRO-FILM MAGAZINE

“WAMEGO will have a league of moviemakers clicking their heels to be transported to the Kansan, Do-It-Yourself state of mind.”
BRAD JEWELL

“It’s fascinating, entertaining, inspiring.”
PLAYLOUDER, UK

“The documentary, more than any other movie-in-process film, actually demonstrates how to make a movie. It’s not a tedious and silly art school exercise, but a deep look into the thinking, perspective and determination that a filmmaker has to have in order to get a vision on the screen. Wamego is good story telling… A rich tale with fully developed characters, a well-developed plot and layers of conflict… Wamego is recommended viewing… Shows those professionals from LA how things should be done.”
DISCOVERY PUBLICATIONS

TOP OR BOTTOM?

There are two ways to budget your movie.  The first, which is known as the traditional manner in which all movies are budgeted, is Bottom Up budgeting.  It’s the least effective way to budget a movie, but most everyone does it.

Bottom Up budgeting is where you start from ground zero with no idea what your movie is going to cost.  Then you identify all the people, jobs, things you think you need, and at the end you’ll have the amount that will cost.  There is software out there, which can help you down this path.  See this example of a traditional budget Top Sheet.

When using this software, you’ll scour an endless list of job titles, finding out there are jobs you never knew about, but that you must need, now that you’re thinking of them.  Yes, a Script Supervisor would be great.  $100 per day is a bit much so you plop in $20 per day.  Then you’ll go to the next job, plop in a new amount, and so on.  At the end of the list, the software will tally up all the jobs and expenses you typed in, and voila: you see the budget for you movie.  In this case, your movie will cost over $240,000.

But then you’re faced with the reality of trying to raise a quarter of a million dollars.  Which, if you can do it, great, by all means, have at it!  But, chances are in this economy it simply isn’t going to happen.  You might raise half that, or even less… but a quarter million?

I prefer to budget a movie using a Top Down approach.  This is where you start with an amount and deduct items you know you can afford, and do away with the items you can’t or don’t need.

Let’s say we believe we can raise $60,000 to produce the movie.  Or, let’s say we have already raised $60,000 and we’re not sure that’s enough.  I’m here to tell you it’s more than enough, and here’s how you’ll do it.

First, identify the items you must have.  Not things you think you need.  You don’t need a Script Supervisor.  Anybody on your crew can do it – since the job is required only when cameras are rolling.  If you’re making a horror film that requires visual effects, or special effects make-up, those items are mandatory.  So, write those down and subtract their cost (let’s say $7,500).  Now you only have $52,500 remaining in your budget.

Next up, fifteen people on the cast and crew.  Let’s say you’ll shoot for two weeks and pay everyone $50 per day.  Subtract $10,500.  Now you only have $42,000 remaining.  Can you get those people to work for deferred?  If so, you can add $10,500 back into your budget.  Need to fly them to the set?  Subtract those costs, or see if you can use airline miles and add those costs back in.

Hopefully you get where I’m going with this.  I’m thinking about expenses as if I were using a debit card.  Not a credit card.

I understand the general public would rather use a credit card instead of a debit card.  The traps of “buy now, figure out how to pay for it later” are easy to fall into.  But those people are usually in debt.

By handling your budget in the Top Down approach; you’ll know exactly how much money you have and can make realistic decisions on what you can afford.  And what you can’t.  Which will keep your movie on budget, and you won’t waste a cent.

CUT OUT THE FAT

If you have a backer with unlimited financial resources like, say, a pharmaceutical company, then this doesn’t apply to you (i.e. Studios).  But for the rest of the filmmaking world, think about this.  People cost time and money.  Even people working for free.

Every single person on your crew will cost a certain amount of money.  That amount varies, of course, because maybe you’re housing people at neighbors and friends.  But if you aren’t, you’re going to have to house them someplace.  Cheap motels aren’t free.  Some people have the ability to fly or drive to you, feed themselves, and bring their own bottled water to the set.  But will everybody?  Probably not.

The easiest way to save time and money is to cut out unnecessary crew members.  If you operate your own camera, you don’t need a camera person.  If you know about lighting, you won’t need a DP.  You don’t need a Gaffer, because anybody can hold the reflector or turn on the light.  Go for an intern.  If you have a DP or camera person it usually means you’ll add another dozen or so people automatically.  Most DPs and camera people can’t manage to hold the camera and also pull focus, change lenses, memory cards, download cards, etc., and they will usually request an additional person for each of those simple activities.  And all of those people will have NOTHING to do but stand there and wait for their specific duty.

By having the actors manage their own costumes and props, you omit the need for a props person, props assistant, costumer, seamstress, and whomever else those people “need” to assist them in order to do their jobs.  Of course, if you use a costume person, consider another area on the crew you can omit a person.  Can that costume person also manage being on Script during the takes (since they’d otherwise be doing nothing)?

By keeping on schedule and doing adequate planning ahead of time, you’ll also omit the need for a Second AD, and any other office-type person who would otherwise have nothing to do but sit around all day waiting to see if you’re behind schedule.

In addition to saving money, by omitting unneeded crew people, you’ll also save time.  The more people you have, the more time it takes for everyone to show up.  More people means less time in the loo (so “take 15 minutes” usually turns into “it’s been 45 minutes, we’re already behind, and not everyone has had a chance to use the toilet.”)

When an aspiring film student comes up to me and says, “I want to work on your crew, I’ll do anything, I’ll even pay my own way,” it’s very tempting to have them join the team.  But I’ve learned to draw the line.  While it’s helpful if one or two people come aboard under those circumstances, six or seven end up bogging down the set.

In addition to saving time and money, a smaller set is more enjoyable.  If you’ve never been on a film set before, you’ll come to love the days when hardly anyone is there.  Fat or thin, tall or short, the fact is, people take up space.

Add in equipment cases, bags, tripods, even at the barest minimum, it becomes crowded really quickly.  And, a crowded hallway isn’t as easy to walk down as an empty one.  Getting on and off the set, or in and out of the location is far easier when there are only a handful of people.

I know it’s exciting to have all your friends around to watch, and people willing to work for free, but please consider my advice and draw the line someplace.  If a person isn’t actually doing something useful, get rid of them.  Or select certain days on the schedule when they could be useful, and tell them to stay home on days that aren’t.

DISTRIBUTION: SALES AGENTS

This article is part of an ongoing series of articles solely about distribution.  A lot of filmmakers are confused about the realities of distribution, and rightly so.  I’ve been making and selling movies internationally for over a decade, and I’m still learning about all the secrets and tricks The Industry hides from us.  Part of the problem is that no one shares this information with each other, both the good and bad, so I’m making it my mission to do so.  Openly, honestly, and hopefully clearly.

When your film is ready for release, there are a variety of ways to get it out into the world.  There are aggregators and sales reps, producer’s reps and distributors, foreign sales agents and a variety of “middle men” who can help you.

Today we’re going to talk about just one of those ways.  The Sales Agent.

Sales Agents are people who represent dozens, if not hundreds, of movie titles.  They take these films to markets such as Cannes, Berlin, and Toronto.  (Film Markets are not to be confused with Film Festivals, which sometimes happen simultaneously and in conjunction to Film Markets).  While attending these markets, they rent a booth or a space (such as a hotel room), and invite buyers from different distribution companies from all over the world, to stop by their booth and check out their titles.  Sometimes the Sales Agent will aggressively track down certain buyers from different countries with promotional flyers about your film.

The Asylum was the first Sales Agent I worked with and they were downright brilliant.  They are incredibly nice people, they paid their bills, they were actively in touch with us, and sharing with us ways they were selling PEP SQUAD.  They managed to sell my movie all over the globe: Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Scandinavia, South Africa, South Korea, the UK, China, Greece, the Baltic States, Indonesia, the Middle East, Portugal, Thailand, and Turkey.  Oh, and even Canada.  I can’t tell you how sad (okay, devastated) I was the day I learned The Asylum wouldn’t be actively selling other people’s movies anymore.

Finding a new Sales Agent to replace The Asylum was a bit like being dumped by the love of your life and having to quickly find a new soul mate or risk perishing into the depths of hell forever.  I think I’ve found a nice replacement, but to date they haven’t made as many sales as The Asylum did for us, so I’m waiting to decide if it’s true love or just fond admiration.

In the process of finding the good guys, I worked with a variety of scumbag Sales Agents selling several of my movies.  And I’ve encountered many that were so full of themselves, and so rude, that I ended up not hiring them.

First, remember that you are hiring a Sales Agent.  They aren’t hiring you.  Their egos are sometimes a problem.  To keep their egos well fed, they will often treat you badly so you think you need them, when in all honesty, to keep in business, they need you.  If they don’t have your film on their roster, they’ll have to find someone else’s film.  They cannot afford to remain in business if they aren’t selling as many movies as they can.  So if you took your film to the next sales agent, they’ll be the ones in a loss.

The second lesson is to BEWARE of Sales Agents’ so-called “marketing expenses.”  I’ve been to the Cannes.  I know for a fact it doesn’t cost several hundred thousand dollars to be there.

Most Sales Agents will pad their “marketing expenses” so they can fly First Class, put themselves up at the Carlton, or Hotel du Cap (well over $1,000 a night) and dine at the “in” places, with tasting menus featuring 20 courses, wine pairings, and more.  Yes.  That’s what they spend their money on.  Or, your money, rather.  They don’t use it to sell your movie.  They think they should be treated like Sharon Stone.  Or Madonna.  And somehow they will try and convince you they should be.

Sales Agents will sometimes pay you an advance when they acquire your movie, but then as they sell it to different buyers, they keep all the money that comes in until they recoup their “marketing expenses.”  Unless you’ve read the fine print and capped their expenses, you may never see another cent beyond the advance.

I prefer not getting an advance in exchange for the Sales Agent taking a commission on all sales, and giving me my shares from the first dollars in.  When you’re signing an agreement with a Sales Agent, be sure to discuss this aspect openly.