Friday, 28 October 2011

Tip #96: Can I protect my copyright?

By Dan Parkes (Director/editor)

It is a classic Hollywood horror story that has almost taken on mythical proportions in its retelling. Someone writes a great script and submits it to a studio. The studio replies that they are not interested. A year or so later the studio releases a film almost identical to the submitted script, except that it has now been written by someone else....

But is this something filmmakers should fear, their ideas being stolen? And what about once they have made their film, does it require copyright and some form of disc digital copyright protection to prevent piracy?

Stolen ideas
Fact: Script ideas are stolen. There is the example of Reed Martin who wrote a script and a Hollywood talent manager sent it to actors he'd liked to have in the film, including Bill Murray. After initial interest, it was eventually dropped...only for a film with an almost identical storyline and characters to be released. The film was Broken Flowers starring Bill Murray...

Of course, this is not the only example and there are regular law suits and allegations. But there could be logical reasons for this, that may not be down to plain and simple theft. There is the obvious fact that there's 'nothing new under the sun' and hence very few scripts can be labelled 'completely original'. There is also a term known as "parallel development" in which similar ideas are developed at the same time. Maybe something registered on a subconscious level in the minds of the director, producer, writer and so it not necessarily blatant stealing.

Balance is necessary
If you become paranoid about your script or idea being stolen and don't let anyone near it without having first signed a NDA etc, then the likelihood is -especially if you are a first time writer- that you will come off as extremely arrogant and overconfident and will never get your script read by those who could actually make it happen. There is an interesting blog at "Scriptxray" which states: "Your ideas will be stolen...and here’s why it's okay...As a people business where everything depends on who you know, it’s best to let your work get out there and be seen – if you don’t, its pretty much impossible to start your career." The article also mentions that "it’s actually more expensive for producers to steal a script than buying or optioning it legitimately – considering the legal fees and reputation damage." (To read more go here)

How to copyright
That doesn't mean to throw caution to the wind. There are a few simple steps to copyright your ideas and script, firstly by simply ensuring that a date, name and copyright symbol is clearly printed on your script. Although a copyright notice is not required, (work is automatically subject to copyright protection under law), displaying a notice shows that you have an awareness of copyright and take infringements of your work seriously.

You can take the extra step of registering your work, such as using a copyright service:

You can also date stamp your work by simply mailing it to yourself and not opening it. This is known as "poor man’s copyright" and there are issues and alternatives worth considering (check here)

If you are talking with a producer and they are comfortable doing it then there is nothing stopping you asking for a NDA to be signed.

Here is a copy of a NDA you can use: NDA template

DVD copright
Your artwork and the film itself can contain a copyright symbol and date, as well as a copyright warning at the beginning of the film. This can be sufficient but if you are wanting to actually prevent people from physically being able to copy your disc then this will involve CSS or Macrovision copy protection, which requires a pay per-disc royalty fee, and is something only available on professionally replicated discs.

Note: Of course this can cut both ways: Make sure you are not using copyrighted material or logos in your film or artwork (for more information check here) including the use of the DVD logo which is in itself copyrighted (more here)!

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Tip #95: Don't forget classification requirements

By Dan Parkes (Director/editor)

All feature films, short films and trailers which are shown theatrically must be classified in the UK and most other countries have similar systems in place. Classification is also a legal requirement if you are selling your DVDs. The only exemption you might be able to consider is if it is for educational purposes (i.e. a documentary or school resource). But in most cases you are going to have to look at getting it classified.

1. Censorship
Censorship -sometimes defined as the suppression of knowledge or ideas to prevent the circulation of offensive or problematic material, is often in itself a controversial issue for filmmakers with the system being used and abused (filmmakers aiming for a particular classification to appeal to a certain audience) and criticized for preventing free speech.

As filmmakers however we need to acknowledge it as part of the production process. Ever since the coming of sound in 1927 there has been a call for censorship starting with the Hays Code of film classification introduced in 1934, that was later replaced by a new classification system in 1968 run by the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America). In Britain we have local councils and the BBFC.

2. Local council classification
If your film is screening in a local film festival then it is likely that the festival organisers will have a blanket classification to cover all the films to be shown. But in some cases the local council will also classify the film itself. This happened to us for a local screening as part of the Brighton Festival, and in this instance there was no charge for us. The film was given a 15 rating.

The BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) is a non-governmental organisation, funded by the film industry and responsible for the national classification of films within the United Kingdom.

At the time of writing a DVD or Blu-ray feature and trailer has a standard fee that comprises of a handling fee of £75 per submission plus £6.00 per minute for a full length of work (which would also have to include any extras such as the Making of).

Based on this rate Ambleton Delight (the film only) would have cost £723+VAT, a total of £867.60 to be classified (you might also have to take into consideration packaging and cancellation and further review fees, plus the cost of reviewing disc extras). If you are looking at self-distribution then this is an important expense to consider.

4. Certificates

There are seven main certificates that your film might fit within:

All ages admitted, there is nothing unsuitable for children over 4.

PG Parental Guidance
All ages admitted, but certain scenes may be unsuitable for children under 8.

12A (Cinema only)
Considered to be unsuitable for very young people. Those aged under 12 years are only admitted if accompanied by an adult, aged at least 18 years, at all times during the motion picture.

12 (Home media only)
12A-rated films are usually given a 12 certificate for the VHS/DVD version unless extra material has been added that requires a higher rating. Nobody younger than 12 can rent or buy a 12-rated VHS, DVD, Blu-ray Disc, UMD or game.

Only those over 15 years are admitted or can rent or buy a 15-rated VHS, DVD, Blu-ray Disc, UMD or game.

Only adults are admitted. Nobody younger than 18 can rent or buy an 18-rated VHS, DVD, Blu-ray Disc, UMD or game, or watch a film in the cinema with this rating.

R18 (Restricted)
Can only be shown at licensed cinemas or sold at licensed retailers and only to adults, those aged 18 or over.

5. Exemption
While there is no legal obligation or any scheme for labelling material that might be exempt from classification (such as educational works) there is a symbol similar to the BBFC certificates that you can use here (click to enlarge):

6. Think ahead
It is important to think ahead during production to what classification your film may end up with. You do not want to alienate your audience -for example the average audience that enjoys period drama romances might be turned away by a 15 or 18 rating.

For more information on BBFC and certificates please visit their official website here.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Tip #94: Make your own DVD artwork

By Dan Parkes (Director/editor)

Carrying on from the earlier blogs regarding designing the film logo and poster and especially if you are looking at the option of self-distribution, you will need to look at designing and creating a DVD "wrap" and "on-body". One important thing to remember is that all artwork should be supplied for printing at a high resolution and at least 300dpi to ensure good print quality.

1. The DVD/Blu-Ray wrap
This is the cover that goes on the outside of the video box, normally underneath a thin film of plastic to protect it. The DVD wrap is often the film poster slightly altered to fit. The rear of the wrap contains some more information about the film, maybe a synopsis and technical details.

Here is the official DVD wrap for our film Ambleton Delight -notice the 3mm bleed around the edges (click to enlarge):

One thing to note is that the wrap for Bluray boxes is slightly smaller. Here is the Ambleton Bluray wrap (click to enlarge):

To help, we are here providing some templates you can use:

Here is a template for creating a DVD wrap (right/control click to save) as a Photoshop file and PDF.

Here is a template for creating a BluRay wrap (right/control click to save) as a Photoshop file and PDF.

2. The DVD/Bluray onbody
The "onbody" refers to the actual DVD or Blu-ray circular disc itself and what is printed on its surface. The size doesn't change for either the DVD or Blu-ray, but you need to remember that there is a hole in the middle which may affect the design layout.

Here is the official Ambleton Delight on-body (click to enlarge):
And here is a template for creating one yourself (right/control click to save) as a Photoshop file.

3. DVD symbol
This is a common trap a lot of filmmakers fall into -using the official DVD symbol. In reality you cannot use the DVD and Blu-ray logos without permission, as permission requires a license and quality control. For more information check this website:

So to make things easier, feel free to use our own logos for free (click to enlarge):Or you can download the Photoshop files (right/control click to save) here: DVD logo and BR logo.

For information on DVD masters check here and for some tips on duplication and replication of your DVD, check our earlier blog here.

If you find any broken links or file format issues please let us know here.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Tip #93: Get distribution

By Dan Parkes (Director/editor)

Distribution - when your film is released commercially to the public either theatrically or for home viewing via DVDs, VOD or TV broadcast - is probably the most asked question we have received and also one of the most difficult to answer, even though we did end up getting a distributor. However, from our experience in producing the feature Ambleton Delight we see there are 3 basic distribution options you have available:

1. Get a sales agent
As mentioned in the previous blog we highly recommend acquiring a sales agent first as a means of getting into the right festivals and approaching the right distributors. This was our single biggest mistake -not getting a sales agent. We tried approaching as many UK distributors as we could find and garnered a lot of interest in our film but the unorthodox approach did not help. Most top distributors would not take a second look at a direct approach from the filmmakers themselves as it is too amateur a method. It is similar to approaching actors directly regarding a role and bypassing their agent. Except that distributors, unlike actors, are primarily commercial operations with too many risks at stake to be making 'creative' choices. So if you are aiming high (which you should be) go through the proper channels and start looking for sales agents as soon as possible.

2. Independent distribution
The happy news is that one indie distributor we approached did say yes -Renderyard Films- and so we can now say that we have actually succeeded in getting a distributor. However, the type of independent non-sales agent distributors you will be looking at will be unlikely to push for a theatrical release or even DVD distribution as this can be expensive, so it will be more likely be limited to on-line and VOD. Which may make you think, well, why not do it yourself?

3. Self-distribution
We have done this in the past and have to say it is something you should look at as a last resort. Although the idea of complete control over the marketing and profit is attractive, there is a tremendous amount of work involved and it can also be expensive and yet be very limited in its scope. Here in the UK you will need to think about classification (which can be expensive, more coming in a later blog) and also duplication/replication of the discs, and then the charging of VAT (tax) and end of year accounting. If we were looking to self-distribute in the future, we would probably narrow that to on-line/VOD.

Be careful
If you are accepted by a distributor make sure you read the fine print. Some distributors will have wording in the contract which essentially means that they will only pay you any returns minus their marketing costs, which in some cases could actually leave you owing them money!

In regards to distribution, the next three blogs will look at DVD artwork, classification and copyright protection.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Tip #92: The truth about film festivals -get a sales agent

By Dan Parkes (Director/editor)

Of course, once your film is done and dusted the next thing you most urgently want to do is to get it out there, and maybe even pick up some awards in the process! This is when filmmakers begin searching for festivals to enter, from Cannes to the small local festivals. But it is at this point that our novice production team learned a very important lesson that we hope to pass on to filmmakers who like ourselves, innocently believe that festivals are where films are found by distributors, or where awards can be given which in turns brings attention and the possibility of distribution. Neither is really true. Although we had a reasonably successful festival round, with six official selections, six award nominations and three awards (two for best film and one for best actor) the fact is that it could have been a lot, lot better.

1. The Festival Plan
A big mistake is to just simply start entering as many festivals as possible hoping to be picked up by a big one. The problem is that we often hear stories of films screened at Sundance or elsewhere that go on to be bought my major studios. But it is just not that simple. The fact is that firstly, most of the major festivals are looking for national or international premieres -not films that have been screened elsewhere already . This can get complicated, meaning that you end up putting all your hopes on getting accepted into just one festival (so as to abide by their 'premiere' regulations), and most likely the chances of being accepted into this are very small.

The truth is that filmmakers themselves should not be entering festivals on their own... they should firstly be looking at getting a sales agent.

Ambleton Delight production team
accepting an award for Best Film.

2. The Sales Agent

To reiterate, this is the person filmmakers should be thinking about long before festivals. Nobody ever told us that until we had already started our festival round, and in my mind was the single biggest mistake we made as producers. But it was down to complete ignorance. Nobody had told us -and we had all been to various film schools- that this was a necessity, or even how it works. But we started to find it strange how our film would disappear once submitted into festivals, and how it seemed like most of the festivals had their programmes worked out already and our entering it was essentially a waste of time. Maybe that's because it was. The fact is that if you get a sales agent first then they will know the best way to market your film and thus help you with a festival plan. Of course, once you have found a sales agent willing to pick up your film you must check the fine print of any contracts or agreements made.

3. The DIY method and awards
A sales agent is not essential. There are filmmakers who would prefer the DIY option in the hope of finding a distributor however unlikely that might be, or it could come down to the fact that they have no choice. If you are careful in your selection of festivals and set a festival budget then you can have the satisfaction of knowing that your film will be seen and that it also might pick up some awards, as did our film. But if you enter film festivals without a proper sales agent then be aware that it will look 'amateur' and you are likely to only be picked up by those locally run festivals run by enthusiasts.

Ambleton Delight production team
with the Best Actor award for the film.

4. The Expense
An important consideration (and another reason for getting a sale agent to help) is that entering film festivals can get very expensive, with not only sometimes exorbitant entry fees, but also the costs of providing the materials required. Some festivals will insist on 35mm prints or HDCAM tapes, the transfer of which can rule out any ideas of entering. But you may also find that there is some local funding for putting your film into festivals -we were assisted by Screen South in our festival round.

5. The Politics and the Scams
And then there is the simple fact that many festivals -except for maybe the small amateur events run by volunteers - are more often than not rigged, driven by mostly hidden agendas, have commercial motives and objectives and in worst cases are just pure money-making scams.
For example, if you have a named actor in your film you are more likely to be picked up because then they might attend which will raise the profile of the festival.

The key issue here is that as filmmakers we should be more aware of this. Our whole industry is about creating illusions, but somehow we sometimes seem to forget that festivals are also part of the facade. On the other hand, the 'small amateur events run by enthusiastic volunteers' can be terribly unorganised and result in your film being shown at the wrong aspect ratio to a room full of empty seats!

Ambleton Delight production team
with other award winning filmmakers.

If this sounds harsh or embittered be assured that this isn't the case and we are happy with our festival round and awards. However we did meet dozens of disillusioned and upset filmmakers at many of the festivals we attended. And we know it could have been better if we hadn't entered in ignorance.

The next blog will look at the next and most asked about step... distribution.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Tip #91: Organise a premiere

By Dan Parkes (Director/editor)

It can be both a very happy and very stressful time for a filmmaker - that moment when the curtain is finally lifted on the film you have been slaving over for months and it is finally seen by an audience for the first time.

The date for the Ambleton Delight premiere was timed to launch a film festival, and hence was a date that was not going to move. It was advertised, free tickets for cast and crew arranged, champagne ordered and tickets put on sale for the public. While the film itself had been cut and effects completed, the sound mix (which was being done separately) began having delays and resulted in final touches being made literally the day before the premiere. But considering it was actually nine months from first draft to premiere, this should not be completely surprising!

Producer Itsuka Yamasaki, actor Sadao Ueda
and director Dan Parkes at the after-party.

The premiere itself was very successful, with 200 in attendance including both cast and crew, special guests and those who bought tickets. Most importantly it was a time to say thank you to all those who helped make it happen. Here are some tips we found on organising a premiere:
  1. Don't leave it to the last minute. Although your concentration will likely be on completing the film you need to start thinking about the premiere from a very early stage.
  2. Location. Obviously a real cinema is the best place, but it might be expensive if you are hiring it. If you can organise it to be shown in a festival then that could solve the problem. Otherwise there are many other non-cinema options you can consider. In the past we have premiered films in a library, a hotel and in a school.
  3. Cast and crew. This is where it can get tricky. Make sure you have an accurate guest list that includes all cast and crew and also those who may have helped in some other way. It might be a good idea to start making this list early in the production so you don't accidentally forget someone in the last minute rush. Also, don't forget to allow each person to bring a guest.
  4. The guest list. Don't just invite those who were involved in the making of the film. Also invite those from the industry and community along to make it an extra special event and to allow for networking opportunities.
  5. Seating. If in a cinema you might want to allocate a special area (such as the back rows) for cast and crew. If not in a cinema you might want to make sure the seats will be comfortable enough for the duration of the film.
  6. Food and drink. It is good if a glass of champagne or wine can be provided to celebrate the event. If you are unable to afford this or get it sponsored then at the very least give people a bag of popcorn!
  7. Test the facilities. Don't ever premiere an event without having first tested the film on the projector and screen to make sure it will look and sound good enough.
  8. Advertise. Send out invitations well in advance and if advertising tickets start looking at ways of getting your premiere known: noticeboards, flyers, posters, e-mails, newsletters etc.
  9. Dress code. From experience most people like to dress up -but make sure everyone knows what is expected. If there is a very formal dress code then this may put some off -especially if they arrive without realising it is the case!
  10. After party. many will want to network or party after the event -if this is not possible at the screening location you might want to think of what facilities are nearby that could be used for this.
  11. Official photographer. It is still part of the production process -so make sure to have an official photographer to record the event.
  12. Festivals. You might also want to think about how the premiere may impact on your festival and sales opportunities. If you have a sales agent or even distributor it is best to discuss this first with them. Also if a film is screened in one country that may make it ineligible for some festivals.
Main actors Jos Lawton and Kristina Anne Howell
at the after-party.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Tip #90: Have a test audience screening

By Dan Parkes (Director/editor)

As filmmakers sometimes we get too close to the film to be able to be objective about whether things are really working or not. In the previous blog we looked at how some films can have various cuts as director's attempt to rectify issues. We also listed some critical factors to look for when deciding on that final cut. But an even better method is to test your film on an actual 'virgin' audience before deciding on a finished cut.

The wrong audience
Of course it is very easy to just show it to those who were involved in the making -the cast and crew- as they are no doubt eager to have some input. While this can be a good idea, they will all suffer from that lack of objectivity that will prejudice any feedback.

They already know the story. They may have seen a lot of it being filmed and know the difficulties and issues already. Many actors do not like seeing themselves on screen, and crew such as sound recordists and cinematographers may well be very critical of their work or the way it has been represented as their reputation is at stake. Their input is all worth considering but may not be entirely helpful. Conversely, family and friends may be aware of the sacrifices you have made and so will not be as critical as you would like them to be.

The right audience
What you really need is a cross section of people who are seeing the film for the very first time -without knowledge of how it begins or ends and without any emotional connections or involved in its making. You want them to be as honest about the experience as possible. But make sure this cross section is your target audience, the correct age group especially, those who would watch this kind of film by choice, otherwise you are only asking for a negative reaction.

Word of caution
Everyone has a point-of-view and everyone is their own film critic ready and able to tell you how much better it could have been. But they may have no knowledge of the limitations or even how films are made. Unless you find a very serious issue, do you have the time and money to reshoot a scene, or write in another scene, or rerecord the music? Tailor the feedback to be more specific, to things which can be practically done to improve the film.

There is also a political and psychological factor to think about: if someone is asked to state an opinion or comment on someone's work there is sometimes a need to justify their involvement or credibility by making a point -even it if is not required or worthy. Especially is this the case when those being asked to comment are employees of a company or part of a committee -they will consciously or unconsciously want to justify their position by finding something wrong. Simply stating that it seems fine would not seem enough.

That is why some test audience's have "focus groups" which will hopefully pinpoint more specific and practical areas of improvement from a collective point of view. But beware of the proverbial "focus group endings" which have spoilt many a film due to an apparent yearning for a Hollywood conclusion!

A case in point: A focus group that watched Wolfgang Petersen's Troy (2004) apparently did not like the dramatic score by Greek composer Gabriel Yared (above). Despite the director and composer having worked hard together on it, the studio, based on the focus group's reaction, rejected the score and James Horner was brought in with only two weeks to create a replacement score. When the film was released the general consensus among many was that the film would have been much better with Gabriel Yared's version, and that it suffered overall as a consequence (although not the only reason it did so).

In the case of Ambleton Delight we arranged several test screenings. However the most important screening we organised encountered an unresolvable technical issue with the sound which meant it had to be cancelled at the last minute, a missed opportunity and embarrassing situation which I will forever regret, and which left us very little time to make adjustments prior to the premiere. In the end the premiere and festival screenings brought enough feedback which we used to create the final version of the film.

Test audiences are not always right...but they are an important part of post-production and you should employ suggestions when and if practical. But remember to not loose your artistic integrity.