The Reel Truth: Everything You Didn't Know You Need to Know About Making an Independent Film

The Reel Truth: Everything You Didn't Know You Need to Know About Making an Independent Film

by Reed Martin

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429953719
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/28/2009
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 544
File size: 607 KB

About the Author

Reed Martin has taught film finance and marketing at a variety of institutions, including NYU's Stern School of Business and Columbia Business School, and is the former director of marketing at Cary Woods's Independent Pictures.

Reed Martin has taught film finance and marketing at a variety of institutions, including NYU's Stern School of Business and Columbia Business School, and is the former director of marketing at Cary Woods’s Independent Pictures.

Read an Excerpt

The Reel Truth

Everything You Didn't Know You Need to Know About Making an Independent Film

By Reed Martin

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2009 Reed Martin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-5371-9


Many Famous Directors Struggled Famously

Regardless of the genre, production budget, or digital format, independent filmmaking is all about struggle. The sooner indie filmmakers realize that things are never going to be easy, the better equipped they will be to handle the setbacks and heartbreaks that go with every independent project. The struggle begins every time a new screenwriter types FADE IN or whenever an aspiring producer or director asks a sympathetic friend or family member for money. Struggle binds indie filmmakers together and makes them a brotherhood and sisterhood of fearless entrepreneurs whose product really is themselves. Given the number of moving parts and places where things can go wrong, nothing about independent filmmaking is ever simple, and those confident and daring enough to pursue their dream should know that they are about to enter the fight of their lives. Those who don't believe it can ask their favorite indie-film director or producer, since very few — if any — have had an easy road and most have suffered every indignity imaginable before becoming a household name. Many made first films that never saw the light of day several years before debating what ultimately would become their "first" films in the minds of the public. Others had to work as caterers, baristas, waiters and temps, and nannies. While it may seem easy, few filmmakers will have their careers handed to them and it is rare that anyone hoping to make a film doesn't at some point feel lonely, defeated, crushed, abandoned, polluted, ripped off, sick, or everything all at once. Struggle is the silent badge of honor among those who choose to throw themselves into one of the most difficult and collaborative art forms, and as a result, filmmakers should never feel truly alone since they have an army of 300,000 fellow would-be filmmakers behind them. Even during their darkest moments of harrowing isolation, indie filmmakers are part of an extended family of unappreciated risk-takers and entrepreneurs following a well-worn path, trodden by many of the celluloid icons they cherish and admire.

Even someone such as The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan, whose second Batman film has now grossed more than $523 million in the United States and $978 million worldwide, was forced to endure years of poverty. "Around the time I finished Following [1998] I moved to L.A. and got a freelance job reading scripts," Nolan recalls. "I was getting $40 per script and I couldn't do more than a couple each day because I really felt a responsibility to try and do it well. A lot of people don't by the way, but I did, so I was really, really slow. Before that, I had spent a couple of years doing freelance video production in London, making absolutely no money. I had no personal entertainment budget for anything at all, and when I finally did get a salaried job in London, doing basically the same thing, my immediate response was: 'Well actually, now I can take half of what I'm making every week and buy film with it.' So as soon as I had regular money coming in — or what felt like steady income — I decided to use it to make Following. In L.A. I didn't give up my day job for a long time, even after Following started getting into festivals. You have to keep your day job a lot longer than you think, basically to pay the rent."

Many A-list auteurs whom everyone assumes were born successful and rich had it harder than today's struggling HD filmmakers could ever imagine. Brothers director Jim Sheridan, a six-time Academy Award nominee, mopped floors and cleaned toilets for years before he directed My Left Foot in 1989 and In the Name of the Father in 1993. "When I first moved to New York in 1982 I was an illegal alien and couldn't really get a job," Sheridan recalls. "I found a little stage where a guy taught opera and they paid $4.25 an hour to answer the phone and $6 an hour to clean the floors and the toilets. I preferred the cleaning. And whenever I was doing that stupid job, mopping up bathrooms, I would tell myself, 'Well, it can't get worse than this.' "

On top of struggling for his art, Sheridan had a family to support and couldn't pull himself along on Rice Krispies for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, or a steady diet of Two Boots pizza and ice water.

"I love New York but it's a city that's very easy to be poor in," Sheridan says. "At first we were living near Avenue B and then I found a place up in Hell's Kitchen. That was a great place and we lived there for about four or five years. Then we moved to Inwood, up at 218th Street, and that was like being in a rural Irish village. Y'know, when you're poor and just searching for a place to live, you have to go wherever you can."

Sheridan's early heartaches trying to make it in Manhattan and his humble living quarters would eventually inform one of his most personal projects, In America. "I don't think we played up what the apartment was like in In America," he says. "In reality it was even tougher in some ways and we had to start over a few times. I was a struggling director, just waiting for The New York Times to review me. Talk about a monopoly! You needed that newspaper to give you a good review to survive."

Many directors who today command six- and seven-figure salaries per film were so overwhelmed by early rejection that they considered quitting, even though doing so would have meant missing a wildly successful career.

"Right after The Tic Code I wanted to give up," remembers director Gary Winick, who would go on to direct Bride Wars, 13 Going on 30, and Charlotte's Web, among others. "It was actually at the Hamptons Film Festival in 1998 and [The Bridges of Madison County screenwriter] Richard LaGravenese was there when I said, 'I'm done ... I'm giving up.' I wasn't proud of The Tic Code, it wasn't coming out, I wasn't able to get any more work, I was raising money by myself for all my other films, and I was just thinking, 'You know, my life isn't going so well.' I didn't have a girlfriend at the time — all the personal stuff wasn't there — and I just thought: There's got to be a simpler way or something else that I'd be happier doing. The thing about independent filmmaking is you have to love it so much because it's so hard."

House of Sand and Fog director Vadim Perelman reportedly worked for several years as a dishwasher and gas station attendant before getting his first chance to direct at age forty. Writer-director Dylan Kidd tried his hand at all sorts of day jobs in and around New York City and wasn't happy doing any of them. "I was a doorman, I was a janitor in a tennis club, and I was a home-care attendant for a while," Kidd recalls ruefully. "Let me tell you, they were some grim years. I worked in a couple of video stores, I worked nights at a pool hall. I loaded cameras for [Two Lovers cinematographer] Joaquin Baca-Asay, who went on to shoot Roger Dodger and P.S. for me. I also worked in real estate for three years, which is how I made money for the first short that I did."

Kidd, who graduated from New York University in 1991, says he scrupulously avoided getting too attached to any one day job because he didn't want to be defined as anything other than an aspiring director. "I think there was some voice in my head that said, 'You don't want to go and get a job that's going to make you too comfortable.' I had classmates who, right out of film school, got a job at a post house and ended up having that job for eight years. It actually became a curse, because they had health insurance and money, but they weren't able to write screenplays. It's the same as people who always say, 'I'm just going to grip on a shoot while I write my script.' Nobody in New York who thinks that they will have time for writing while they are working as a film technician actually ever does it because that lifestyle is just too exhausting. But there were definitely many years where I didn't do anything in film, where people would say, 'What do you do?' and I was too embarrassed to say I was a filmmaker because I wasn't doing it."

For some reason, many aspiring filmmakers in Los Angeles find it very hard to define themselves as screenwriters, producers, or directors, since without a credit on IMDb, such a statement might inspire nods of quiet pity or derision.

"I guess you just have to get into kind of a Zen thing of not taking people's opinions of your career choices personally," Kidd says. "You have to know that when you're trying to make it as a filmmaker, you're sort of guilty until proven innocent, and that people are going to doubt you until you make it. You just have to keep saying to yourself, 'I know that I am for real. I know that I'm a serious filmmaker. I know that this is a good script. Nobody else knows it, but someday they will.' And you just can't give up. I went to film school with plenty of people who had more talent than I did but I just happened to be more stubborn."

This is especially true for filmmakers hoping to raise financing for edgy or emotionally raw material. "I left New York in January 2001 because I couldn't afford the overhead, and moved to Virginia, where I worked all these different odd jobs while I worked on the script for The Woodsman," says writer-director Nicole Kassell. "For a year I taught video filmmaking to two different local high school groups, I taught screenwriting to a group of adults, and I was also a wedding videographer. I constantly had all sorts of fears that it wasn't going to ever work out. There was definitely a very loud nagging voice in my head saying: 'What am I going to do if this doesn't happen?'"

Luckily, Kassell's producer on The Woodsman was someone who understood difficult storylines that focused on flawed antiheroes trying to make good. "My advice to filmmakers who are trying to make really challenging films is to embrace the struggle required to make them," says Lee Daniels, director of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire and producer of Monster's Ball. "All great films come from a struggle. People said Monster's Ball shouldn't be made and even asked why I was working on such a film. But struggle puts hair on your chest. You fight so hard for these little movies that sometimes you feel like you must be crazy. Sometimes I think, 'Why don't I just buy into the system? Get myself a house and a decent car?' But when I see a result like The Woodsman and the effect the films have on people, it makes me feel like I'm not crazy, that I'm not alone, and that people do appreciate them. And that's why you do it."

The Wrestler director Darren Aronofsky went from being an unemployed screenwriter who frequently dined solo at Van Gogh's Ear in Venice, California, to being celebrated for his daring vision in films like Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain.

"I was in film school at AFI [American Film Institute] during my first year in Los Angeles so that kept me busy, but after that it was pretty tough," he recalls. "I think the loneliness and paranoia and isolation of Max Cohen in Pi is the most autobiographical part of that film because it's very much how my time in L.A. was for two and a half years. I had no one reading my scripts, and when I did finally send out a script I was working on, I think only one company responded out of the fifty I sent it to. But basically I found it a very hard place to be single and unemployed."

While aspiring filmmakers may speak disparagingly of "the suits," many specialized film distribution executives have shared their pain. "When I was in college at Penn State, I was so much poorer than any of the people trying to make movies," says Lionsgate Films president Tom Ortenberg. "I ate ramen noodles for a year and had to donate blood plasma twice a week for beer money. I ate a lot of mac and cheese and hot dogs for a long time. Some friends and I started our own political party while we were in college, and we showed movies like Revenge of the Nerds in the lecture halls on weekends to raise money for our political activities. That's how I got my start in film."


The most common struggle shared by filmmakers, regardless of age, race, orientation, or education, is simply that of raising funds. Money is a lot harder to come by than most people realize, and any filmmaker who is secretly counting on an heiress friend or wealthy pal from childhood to finance his entire picture out of an ATM card, which she certainly could do, is in for a disappointing shock. Most aspiring filmmakers don't learn until it's too late that very rich people do not typically invest in independent movies, even if they dated or went to school with the director or aspiring screenwriter. Hedge funds aside, most people with huge cash reserves avoid the risk associated with speculative or illiquid investments with "high absolute-value beta."

Of course, the fantasy is hard for many independent filmmakers to shake: the rich-person relationship they have nurtured for years will pay huge dividends when it comes time to "green-light" their indie feature or short. Who can blame them? Oftentimes the idle words of encouragement from this wealthy friend will be wildly misinterpreted as some kind of future "call option" or offer to invest in the project. Other filmmakers simply hope to be introduced to a wealthy person's circle of high-net-worth friends at a party reminiscent of a Dynamite Hack YouTube video. Until the right time to broach the subject presents itself, a filmmaker may work on a screenplay for years or endlessly rewrite a business plan at the exclusion of sleep, love life, personal finances, family visits, getting married, having children, and maintaining health insurance only to be terribly disappointed when it comes time to ask for the big check. Indeed, the most dangerous assumption a screenwriter or filmmaker can ever make is that any one individual wants to finance the entire project, or that any one person with amazing connections is the sole bridge to their film getting financed or produced. Even so, aspiring filmmakers are often shocked that rich friends from childhood or college might be insulted to discover that they were the cornerstone of the filmmaker's nexus of funding sources. The truth is most wealthy people have familial obligations, wedding plans, hedge fund losses, trust covenants, company boards of directors, or other constraints of an undisclosed nature that tie their hands and keep them from participating.

Even Oscar-winning actors, who know plenty of potential investors, often have a very hard time raising funds for movies they want to make, despite incontrovertible track records and every sort of connection under the sun. "I had difficulty raising money for Albino Alligator, I had difficulty raising money for The United States of Leland, I had difficulty raising money for Beyond the Sea," admits director and actor Kevin Spacey. "Don't make the assumption that just because an actor of a certain note is involved in a project that buckets of money are falling from the sky. It isn't true. It's just not the way movies are made."

Indeed, most independent filmmakers of any renown have had to crawl over broken glass at one point or another. "Everybody has a story," continues Spacey, who has served as the artistic director of the Old Vic Theatre in London since 2003. "If you go to any film festival and you listen to a director talk about how difficult it was to get a movie going, you'll hear how everybody has a tough time. I've had tough times, you know, and my story isn't any worse than anybody else's."

The secret is not to let everything good in a person's life unravel in the belief that chaos is part of the "tapestry" of getting an independent film made. Before quitting day jobs or risking relationships for a dream, filmmakers should remember that fund-raising can sometimes take years, not months, and that financing can fall out of a promised, green-lit, or "go" project even on the level of Gods and Monsters, Pieces of April, The Caveman's Valentine, the Diane Keaton-Sarah Jessica Parker indie The Family Stone, the Matthew McConaughey indie Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, Young Adam, Steve Buscemi's Interview, director Niki Caro's The Vintner's Luck, Go, and countless others.

Other indie productions require in excess of $300,000 just to complete reshoots and postproduction. "We got the initial financing for Shallow Grave, about one million pounds, which was about $1.4 million at the time, off of Film4, a source that has sadly gone to the wall now," recalls director Danny Boyle. "But the funny thing was, we ran out of money. We were first-time filmmakers. They just gave us the money and they weren't going to give us any more. It wasn't like now where you can get some more money off people and things like that. That was it. We had four or five days left to shoot and we had no celluloid. So we sold off the set, bit by bit. It's all set in that one flat. We'd finish shooting in one room and then we'd sell all the props and furniture to members of the crew to raise money. They gave us money for the sofa and things like that, and we used the money to buy ourselves some more film for the last few days. We raised thousands of pounds because we sold a lot. It was great, though, because it's such a restriction on you, that you have to come up with other options. You don't have the solution of money as a low-budget filmmaker. And that's what we sort of did on 28 Days Later, although we imposed the restrictions ourselves because we're lucky enough to be able to raise money now. We still set limitations on ourselves because they do make you more imaginative. It's an old cliché but it's true. When you can't solve your problems with money, you have to find a different way to do it."


Excerpted from The Reel Truth by Reed Martin. Copyright © 2009 Reed Martin. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Many Famous Directors Struggled Famously,
2. Writing MBA-Style Business Plans ... Or Not,
3. First You Get the Money: Financing Woes,
4. Seeking Legal Advice: Cheaper Than Your Life,
5. Casting Up and Cashing In: Landing Big Names,
6. The Nightmare of Story and Screenplay Theft,
7. Phones Off! Common Production-Day Mistakes,
8. That Music in Your Head ... Is Too Expensive,
9. Guess What ... It Can't Be Fixed in Post,
10. Your New Best Friend: The Producer Rep!,
11. All or Nothing: Distribution Deal Breakers,
12. Getting Your Film Seen: Smarter Marketing,
13. What's Next? Career Strategies for Making It,
14. Documentary: Following in Herzog's Footsteps,
15. Out of the Theater: BitTorrent, Netflix, and Amazon,
Appendix I: Independent-Film Budgets,
Appendix II: Sample Formal Agent/Screenwriter Representation Contract,

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The Reel Truth: Everything You Didn't Know You Need to Know About Making an Independent Film 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
giganova More than 1 year ago
Tremendously helpful if you are an independent and first time filmmaker. I read virtually all books about this subject and found this book by far the best in terms of how Reed Matin's experience and tips translate into the real world of independent film production, finance, distribution, and marketing. Highly recommended!
JEEF More than 1 year ago
I LOVE THIS BOOK!!!!!!!!! I am a professional film actor and my knowledge of what happens behind the camera is limited. I have always loved the movie business and aspire to do more than be just infront of the camera. Reed Martin truly knows what he is talking about in this book and backs it up with relative and pertinent information, much of it from personal experience. When I saw it on the shelf it was literally screaming at me to pick it up! I am glad I did! I actually sat on the floor at Barnes and Nobel, for 20 minutes and I couldn't put the book down! I knew, at that moment, I had found a terrific resource for gaining knowledge of every aspect of making an independent film. When I was a kid, my father taught me the importance of learning and gaining knowledge of every aspect of whatever business one is involved in. He explained that one doesn't have to be an expert on everything but, knowing a little bit about every aspect gives you contrast to know if something is or isn't working or if you are getting screwed by someone. In "The Reel Truth," Reed Martin gives you that broad scope of knowledge. What he talks about is indespensible, from development to post production to marketing and distribution and beyond. Marketing is one area where I see a lot of independent film makers screw up. There is nothing more frustrating for an actor to work in a film where no one but dear old mom and dad will see it. If you want to do your film justice, then you "HAVE TO" seriously consider "EVERY" aspect of making a film and doing it right. If you want to make it big as an indie film maker then you have to play big and think big. Playing small won't serve you! You have to change your thinking! Reed Martin shows you how in "The Reel Truth." Please...I am begging you!!! Read This Book!!! It really is that good!!!!
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