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Make Your MovieWhat You Need to Know About the Business and Politics of Filmmaking
By Barbara Freedman Doyle
Focal PressCopyright © 2012 Elsevier Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAbout You
Filmmakers, by nature, are dreamers and communicators. More than the need to have a stable income, health insurance, or a pension, a filmmaker feels compelled to tell stories, to use a camera to find a new universe, or to explore the old universe in a new way. Whether you are an aspiring screenwriter, producer, director, cinematographer, editor, production designer, story editor, development person, or production executive, there is a reason you have decided that you want to work on movies more than you want security. Your friends and family may support your ambition—or not. You may care what they think in an abstract way, but you're not about to be shifted off course from doing what you want to do. You don't want to be difficult, but you're sure you've found the thing you need, the thing you care about doing more than anything else. You've found your passion.
Passion is a word you'll hear used over and over to explain and describe what it takes to work in the film industry. Passion is determination, and guts, and love. Any one of the three is not enough. You MUST feel Passion in order to want to stick with a process that can be demeaning and demoralizing.
Filmmakers often pass through a series of stages:
First there is The Dream—I Love Film, I Will Make Films. Then The Pep Talk—I'm Talented; Everyone Agrees that I'm Talented
After a while ...
Loss of Confidence—Maybe It's Not Just About Talent. And Anger—Who Do These People Think They Are Anyway?
This is the stage when many people decide that they'd better do something less random and more pleasant for a living. If that feels OK to you, you should stop reading right here and figure out what else you'd like to do. You will save yourself uncertainty and pain. Every producer, director, and screenwriter I know has stated about making a film, "If you can imagine being happy doing something else, do it!"
If you can't imagine being happy doing something else, stay with me for the final stage: the Realization. By the time a filmmaker has reached Realization, he or she is usually a little beat up and a lot less idealistic. The Realization is, there's no secret handshake, there's just figuring out the way things work.
It's about art, but it's also about money and politics. The filmmaker who has no sense of the politics of the industry is a soldier marching into battle with no armor. The cause may be noble, but he or she is going to get hurt.
Understanding the business will not get you the keys to the kingdom. Success in the film business is about talent, perseverance, timing, and luck. A sense of the way the business works will not make you a better filmmaker—a lot of it is about talent. But talent alone will probably not get you where you want to go. Understanding the way things work can give you a road map, a way to remain sane in the midst of a seemingly insane world.
Thanks to new technology, these days it is possible to make a film anywhere in the world. You can rent a camera (film or digital), gather up some actors, and mount a production without ever leaving home. That's probably not quite what you had in mind, though. If you want to make a feature that gets distributed, and that will be the "breakout" project that paves your path to making more features, you will most likely have to relocate to a film center—in the U.S. that means Los Angeles or New York. Unlike writing a book or composing music, the making of a film is not a solitary experience. You MUST work with other people at every stage. You will have to learn to effectively present yourself and your ideas, to instill confidence in those who have far more know-how than you do, to rely on other people (some of whom you would never in a million years choose as friends), and to compete with established filmmakers. All of this just to have your work viewed, hopefully admired, and definitely critiqued by strangers.
Making a film is a commitment. It takes a special sort of discipline to resolve to do something very difficult with the possibility that there may never be a reward. In other types of work, if you hang in there long enough there is usually some promise of success. But there is no guarantee that you will ever make your movie. You must be the kind of person who can get out of bed every morning knowing that you will face indifference and rejection and still be ready to make the calls, shake the hands, and pitch your story again and again. Skillfully. And with enthusiasm.
The actual shooting of a movie can take from just three weeks to several months, with several months after that spent in postproduction. But it can take years to find material, develop or write a script, raise funds, get people on board, and cast actors who will add something to the distribut-ability (not a word, but an extremely important concept) of your project. It can take even longer to make people aware of the project once it's completed, and to get the finished project in front of people. It's an endurance test with lots of talking and pushing while trying not to seem as if you're pushing.
If you have a hard time dealing with difficult people, or you're someone who does not work well with others, you will have an especially tough time with the process. Despite the stories of filmmakers who finance their projects via their own credit cards, most people in the industry believe that you should not invest in your own movie. Your investment will be time—not only the time spent putting together your project, persuading, and cajoling, but the time spent finding a way to earn an income that won't keep you from doing your primary job, which is getting the movie made. You will likely be spending time doing work you don't enjoy to support your basic needs of food and rent. If this is something you don't think you can do and you're not independently wealthy, then we're back to the Passion thing. It's not that you aren't talented, and it's not that you don't care about your film, it may simply be that you won't last.
As this book moves through the stages and people involved in the business of filmmaking, I'll be addressing the changing politics of the people and the language—"politics" meaning the way things work between people in the industry, who needs who in order to move ahead and survive, the pecking order, and the management of those relationships to your advantage. It's crucial that you know who has the power and that you gain a sense of how and if you can fit in. As for the language, understanding the language of the industry is important for the same reason you hire a guide or translator or buy a phrase book when you travel to a foreign country. You don't want to sound as if you studied issues of Variety. In fact, you probably shouldn't use any industry buzzwords at all at this stage—you may sound like a poseur. But you should understand what people are talking about before you're in a meeting and they're talking about you.
Chapter TwoWho Are These People, and What Do They Do?
IT'S EASIER TO SAY NO
Every job in the movie business is about finding and securing material and talent (creative elements) for a project; securing funding, and supervising the creative, logistical, and financial execution of the project; finding a way to get the finished project in front of an audience or finding a way to get an audience in front of the project. Depending upon the exact title of the executive, the responsibilities vary but in general all the jobs are there to support or lead the process of development, funding, preproduction, production, postproduction, sales, distribution, marketing, or publicity.
Studios are publicly owned entities. Almost anyone can call a stockbroker, put down some cash, and buy a (very) tiny share of the corporation that owns Universal or Fox. As a stockholder, you want your investment to make money. The Board of Directors of the corporations that own the studios know that if a film costs $100 million to make, it must show a profit of two and a half to three times the investment, otherwise the studio and the stockholders won't make money. (This two and half to three times the production budget formula is in part because the cost of effectively marketing and distributing a film is so high). If the studio doesn't make money, the shareholders don't make money. The president of production loses his or her position and sometimes the other executives are out of a job when the new president arrives, because that person wants to be surrounded by his or her own people. The "business" of the parent corporations is not only movies: Universal is NBC Universal, Warner Bros. is part of Time Warner, Disney is Disney/ABC, Paramount is part of Viacom, 20th Century Fox is owned by News Corporation, and Sony Pictures Entertainment is owned by Sony, the electronics corporation. For some of the stockholders in these entertainment conglomerates, movies are just a single aspect of a complex web of media investment and no one invests their money intending to lose it. Critical acclaim is nice but the dollar is king.
The dilemma of the studio executive is that the shelf life of his or her position is extremely limited. A few bad calls and he or she is out of the game. The probability of maintaining an executive position at the same studio or major production company for several years is so low that experienced executives have their lawyers negotiate their "exit packages" as part of their arrival signing and bonus contracts. The job is fraught with peril. No matter how much the production executive might love your project, if it's going to be a hard sell it will be an uphill battle. Nobody wants to spend the time and energy it takes to shepherd a project that won't get made, or worse, to get a project made that no one wants to see. The easiest response to a project is a "Pass," which means "No." Executive compensation (paychecks and bonuses) is lavish by ordinary standards, and so is the lifestyle that kind of compensation affords. Why risk it to make a movie just because you think it might be good? Then there are the perks (short for perquisites). These are the bonus benefits, like tickets to playoff games, traveling first class, the right tables at the best restaurants. Why give them up if you can avoid it? Few films are profitable. An entire career can be built by someone who consistently rejects almost all pitches, scripts, or acquisitions. Pass, and the risk is minimal.
Of course there is always the possibility that the project will be picked up by another company and become a smash hit. That's another kind of risk, and it's happened. Home Alone was passed on by Warner Bros., made by Fox, and ended up with ticket sales topping $534 million and a series of sequels. My Big Fat Greek Wedding was an independent film that struggled to find financing for a $5 million budget and eventually earned $369 million. Slumdog Millionaire almost didn't get made at all. But $362 million later, the film was a runaway hit and won eight Oscars in 2009, including Best Picture.
HOW IT WAS
In general, when people refer to a studio, they're speaking of "the majors," or the big six: Universal, Warner Bros., Paramount, Fox, Sony, Disney. As recently as ten years ago, many studios did it all—developed projects (generated ideas, optioned material, closely supervised the script drafts), packaged them (put together the talent that would make the project viable), produced them (sometimes on their own back lots so there was even money to be made as the cash simply moved from one area of the studio to another), then marketed and distributed them.
Excerpted from Make Your Movie by Barbara Freedman Doyle Copyright © 2012 by Elsevier Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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