Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Tip #99: Learn from our mistakes

By Dan Parkes (Director/editor)

As cast and crew we are all very proud of the film we produced. Not only the way it was made and for how little, but the final product is something we are very satisfied with, as in many cases it has exceeded expectations. However, that doesn't mean it couldn't have been a lot better!

In fact, from my perspective as the director I think there were 10 key mistakes that I was personally involved in making:

1. Under-developed script
The script was an adaption of a short film concept that itself was based on a true story. It was written in a matter of months and although we had many different drafts and long script editing sessions with three writers, the producers and a script supervisor present the fact remains that a lot more could and should have been done. It should have been a lot shorter, several scenes could have been reduced or collated together and in particular dialogue condensed to avoid unnecessary repetition. (see tip #13).

2. Name of the film
A film title should be memorable and this one just isn't. People struggle with it. It was originally entitled "Apple Pie" but this seemed too simple and it went through several different versions until resting on a fictitious village name and the name of the dessert. It was a nice idea...but if people can't remember it, then it doesn't work (see tip #5).

3. Too many locations and characters
We tried to keep the number of locations and characters to a minimum, with several characters condensed into one, but somehow these aspects of the production kept expanding and in the end made a lot more work for everyone involved (see tip #15).

4. Target audience
We never really addressed who our target audience was, other than those who enjoy the generic "drama" genre. This was probably due to the "inspired by a true story" and "passion piece" elements of the production, but that is no excuse. We should have identified our audience more, as this is crucial for marketing the film later, and also for considering classification (see tip #95).

5. Logo clearance
During the production we did try to avoid including logos and brands that could cause issues, but we just weren't vigilant or inventive enough, especially in two particular cases involving beer and TinTin pajamas that lead to headaches in post-production (see tip #88).

6. No sales agent
This was a biggie. It was not until the film was well done and dusted that there was even a mention of "a sales agent" and we still didn't even know who or what it meant! In actual fact we shouldn't have even finished the first draft before organising one. By all means don't make the same mistake of neglecting to learn about this before entering production (see tip #92)

7. Gave away our budget
When we completed the film on so little -despite assurances that we couldn't do it- we thought this was a positive aspect of the production that we could use to help the profile of the film. So early press releases and film trailers mention the next-to-nothing budget. It might work for a zombie film made on £45, but for a serious village-based drama we actually shot ourselves in the foot. Since the film does not look low-budget we were selling ourselves short and giving the wrong impression. And that's exactly what happened. (see tip #14).

8. Too festival focused
Still unaware of what a sales agent was we instead focused on film festivals, mistakenly believing this would lead to more opportunities. We played the "premiere" game aiming for festivals that could premiere the film. While it wasn't a total failure, actually our time and money would have been better spent getting a sales agent and proper distribution. (see tip #92).

9. Indie distributor
We eventually settled for an indie distributor which seemed like a good decision at the time, but in reality at our present rate we are probably unlikely to make even our budget back any time soon. Personally, I think it would have been better if we had gone the self-distribution route, even though such an option has definite drawbacks (see tip #93).

10. The blog and social media
Our low budget film production blog has from the very start worn its heart on its sleeve, detailing the mistakes, agony and pitfalls of making a next-to-nothing budget film, as well as sharing what worked for us with the hope that other filmmakers might join in with more advice. Instead many fellow filmmakers have at best misinterpreted our intentions, at worst used it as a platform to launch insults and abuse (see tip #98).

So was this blog a waste of time, a mistake? Well from the positive feedback I am sure there are filmmakers who will benefit from it, as there is everything we would like to have known if only someone else had told us before we started. But the fact is that while modern web-based social media has brought everyone closer together, that also means you are brought close to some real nutters! So in all honesty, I would recommend creating and maintaining a distance when it comes to social media, as the emotional cost of dealing with on-line immaturity is sometimes just not worth it.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Tip #98: Prepare for the haters

By Dan Parkes (Director/editor)

It is a disturbing aspect of being a filmmaker, but unfortunately the not-so-simple act of making a film will automatically put you in line for possible abuse, either directly, or more likely indirectly, (as with website 'trolls').

You may also think that this would more likely come from disgruntled and anonymous audiences who dislike the end product. The fact is that the four main sources of abuse will come from possibly surprising quarters: fellow filmmakers.

Constructive criticism
Before looking at some specific examples we must emphasise the importance of constructive criticism and how this differs from insulting or attacking filmmakers or their films. There is a simple saying frequently used on film sets: "Don't give me a problem, give me a solution". This shows how the following examples certainly differ from constructive criticism which should be warmly welcomed by all filmmakers. I personally encourage people to criticise and comment on my work and will take onboard such advice (refer to a recent blog about test audiences here) especially when they give practical suggestions and solutions to what they think isn't working or could be done better.

However this is completely different from those who make unfounded, aggressive and in many cases just plain insulting comments. Their intent is not to help the film or the filmmaker but -just the same as the proverbial school bully- to make themselves feel better by putting others down. Which is not only childish but a real shame to discover that such immature behaviour exists within an industry that thrives on teamwork. In many cases it stems from bitterness, jealously and issues that are more their own making and irrelevant to the filmmaker or film they are attacking.

1. From cast (the "prima donnas")
We have already covered the fact that unfortunately there are actors who can suddenly turn abusive over imagined ill-treatment. Unlike the other three sources, this can be a particular problem for a low budget production if it requires recasting. For more information on dealing with prima donnas check here.

2. From crew
During the making of Ambleton Delight the production team extended every effort to make cast and crew feel as comfortable and appreciated as possible -despite the fact that this can be a very difficult task when working on such a low budget.

The general response has been very positive. But we have heard stories from other film sets where this is not the case, with DoPs having to take over the role of the director due to a row with the cast, of crew storming off sets because they are bored or feel they are being 'used', of unpaid runners suing a production company, or those who just don't turn up at all. And then there are those who bad mouth the production team afterward, instead of raising the concerns at the time.

3. From volunteers
We had an interesting situation where a man who had previously worked in the film business, kindly offered the rear of his restaurant premises for a shoot. He volunteered, without us even asking, an offer we eventually took up when we found ourselves in a tight spot. The location worked well, but due to failing light we asked if it was possible to come and film pickups. Unfortunately, one of the producers who made the telephone call obviously caught this man in a different mood, who became so abusive over the phone that it made any thought of shooting pickups completely impossible. We have no idea what changed his attitude, except that he possibly assumed we actually had a larger budget than what he previously thought. This is in fact the key issue when receiving help from volunteers especially when you also have high professional standards -it can sometimes send the wrong message.

4. From fellow filmmakers
And then the most surprising (or maybe not so surprising?) source: from those the same as you. You would think that the amount of effort involved in film production would garner at least a small amount of mutual respect. Apparently not.

Here are some 'printable' examples of what fellow filmmakers have written about our production and production blog....

Karel Bata a UK filmmaker (lives in a "posh bit" of London, http://sweetheartfilms.com/) was the first to take unreasonable offense by alleging our lighting blog recommended not using a DoP (which it did not) and went on to post on forums and bulletins insults and allegations such as "He's made a huge public gaff, and is now getting his head chewed off. He'll learn from it...complete IDIOT here."

Freya Black, a UK filmmaker also wrote about our lighting blog: "How nasty can you get!....making such a massive fool of themselves in public, I personally just find it embarrassing...will just make me cringe, even if it has high bizarre value....it certainly seems like you have been disloyal and unappreciative".

Mike Mann (http://www.gitve.com/team.html) also took exception to the lighting blog describing it as a "slap in the face to DPs disguised as a tip to the masses."

Fellow low budget filmmaker Jonathan Williams regards our production diary as "spam disguised as endless, and often substandard 'tips'... as a means of pulling them to your website and attempting to sell them your DVD".

Valentine Palmer, a Brighton, UK based actor/presenter most famous for some TV bit parts and for directing a porn film. "Your feature film (with a title too laughable to even mention)... within the first few minutes of the film’s showing, (I could see) that this was an absolute disaster.... you appear to be manifestly incapable of taking charge of the director’s chair for any kind of major filmic undertaking... The screenplay of your film gave the impression of having been written by someone who had never bothered to study the construction of a movie. There was no noticeable plot arc, character arc or scene arc. There was certainly no apparent 3-act structure within a film devoid of action, humour, suspense or romance."

Gregory Singer, Director at Stallion AV Productions in the Greater New York area and who describes himself as "proud to be Korean... shy around people, but not with a camera" began by describing the film as "Nice. Not great, but nice." But became increasingly unpleasant and over the course of many months posted many unfounded accusations on Shooting People bulletins including those that took "issue with" our production blog which he goes so far as to call "dangerous" and "disseminating bad information... Breaking the law is promoted as *good* low budget filmmaking technique...Unilaterally redefining decades old set job descriptions because 'having no money' makes you an exception?" He called us "newbies" and asked: "What exactly do you think DP or DoP stands for? DIRECTOR of Photography. Did you go through several MOVIE DIRECTORS when shooting this film? Is it a sort of Round Robin production where everybody gets a chance to do each job?"

UK filmmaker and blogger Ben Blaine (picture with brother Chris above) also entered the furor over our blog which he labelled "the Ambleton Delight Debacle" calling it "delicious bru-ha-ha... where a couple of badly chosen words about DPs have sparked a furore."

Dan Selakovich an editor/writer from LA, took exception to the blog on continuity, reading an unwritten job description inbetween the lines, saying "We are into my pet peeve of the view of script supervisor, and this low-budget tip has gotten it wrong... again....One more part of this "tip" that makes my blood boil...that's rank beginner stuff....What you leave out in your "tips" is blinding... More of my nasty comments below: I don't find your blogs practical. I find them utterly incomplete."

Someone who calls themselves "Anonymous" wrote this curious entry on the lighting blog "Dear Mr. Rambleton...you set yourself up for this....Very strange how I don't see more directors holding a boom. Seems to me you should take your 'advice' and go 'Australian'".

Tom Tremayne even questions our "creativity" when he writes: "It's a shame that supposedly creative people feel they need to impart advice that's merely common sense dressed up as something else!"

You might wonder why we have gone to the effort of reprinting what is mostly either unfounded, misconstrued or just plain insulting comments, especially since we have received several times more positive and appreciative feedback, not to mention even some awards. Well it just goes to show how as a passionate and heartfelt low budget filmmaker you will also need to develop a thick skin and a sense of humour, and especially don't expect any sympathy or even support from fellow filmmakers!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Tip #97: Your most valuable tool - communication

By Dan Parkes (Director/editor)

It is one of the most common complaints -not knowing what is happening. Not knowing when and where the filming will be, not knowing what is expected, not knowing how long it will take, not knowing what has happened to the film.... As filmmakers we are creating an artform that is meant to communicate a message but sometimes we perhaps inadvertently overlook the fact effectively communicating with cast and crew is an equally important priority.

Communication is your most valuable tool as filmmaker, but before using it on your audience think of these areas:

Every key date of filming should have a call sheet sent in advance of it. At least 12 hours before if possible. It should contain all the information your cast and crew need: location, times, contact information, directions etc. For more information and examples check here.

2.Contact list
From the very beginning set up a document with all key members of cast and crew listed with their mobile numbers. Don't rely just on your own phone -it can get lost, plus you can easily share this document with members of your production team as and where necessary. Print it out and have it on you at all times. Use people's mobile phones to contact them directly and keep them up-to-date with last minute changes in times and locations. Again, the contact list will help you make sure you don't forget someone when there is a sudden change in schedule.

Start an e-mail list for your cast and crew and keep them regularly updated via this method on the progress of the production. It is also an excellent way to cut down on printing costs
-you can send scripts and actors may only need to print out the portion they are involved in.

You can take the e-mail method one step further and start a weekly or monthly newsletter to keep absolutely everyone connected to the production in loop on the progress of the film. It also makes sure that no one misses out on the latest news or that you have to keep replying to individual enquiries regarding the production status.

An excellent and free on-line software that can help manage your list, as well as assist with the design and subscription, is Mail Chimp.

5. Afterwards and actor showreels
Once the production is over that should not mean you cut ties with everyone involved. We continue to send the occasional newsletter even though it is over 12 months since the release of our film. Stay in touch with everybody via e-mail or the newsletter, find out their news, tell them how the film is doing.

This also includes members of the cast who may approach you in regard to their showreels. So many productions can end up unfinished and disappear. The very least an actor deserves, especially if they were doing it on a very low budget (or free), is to see some of the footage so they can use it on the showreel. Make sure they know they have a right to the footage and that you will help facilitate this in whatever way possible. Although you may want to think about having a clause in their contract delaying this by six months if you believe it may cause creative issues to release footage before the release of the film. Very few actors would want to jeopardise the potential success of a film they were in so would understand the necessity of this.

And finally, for an example of monthly newsletter, with latest news, tips and free stuff etc check out Dan-the-Cameraman -there is an edition coming this week: