What is Filmmaking? [Part Three]

Everyone ‘knows’ about the things I’ve written in Parts One and Two; however it is what I cover in this part that will make or break your career as a filmmaker.

Anybody with money and tools can make a film, just like anyone with pencil and paper can draw. But to have a career as a successful artist whose works are exhibited in prestigious galleries or museums across the world is another matter entirely. It takes a completely different skill-set to sell and profit from your work.

Remember: For a successful career in filmmaking, the filmmaker must treat his projects like a business, and must make efforts to profit from it, or else it cannot be sustained. This is the harsh reality of filmmaking.

In the last part of this series, I will briefly cover Marketing, Releasing and Maintenance.

5. Marketing and Publicity

Marketing starts before the scripting phase. Before putting one word on paper the screenwriter or filmmaker must know

  • Who the target audience is,
  • The marketing budget that will be required to reach this audience,
  • The logline,
  • The genre it falls into, and
  • The potential actors who will play in it

The Target Audience
Gender, age, race, religion, socio-economic class, education, income, location, etc determine the classification of a market. Whom exactly are you targeting with this movie of yours? Once you have sorted out the groups in detail you will have to find out how many fall under this group, and where they are located.

The Marketing Budget
Once you know your target audience, you will know which marketing tools to use to get their attention. There are so many avenues – television, radio, newspapers, word-of-mouth, social networking sites, internet advertising, text messaging, billboards, ad infinitum. Which of these tools are the most efficient to use? Once you’ve noted down the possibilities, you will have to research and understand how much it will cost. Is the market too small to recover the budget of the film? Then write another story. Is the market too big for your limited budget? Then write another story or rethink your original idea to be more specifically targeted.

The Logline
If you have a market in place and the budget under control, then it is time to find the message that will hit home. A logline is a short description of your movie, in not more than a few sentences. There are many ‘rules’ on the internet on how to write a good logline, but I won’t go into it here. The only thing you have to understand is that the shorter and simpler the logline, the easier it will be to reach your target audience. Think of the logline as the text in the poster, DVD jacket or marketing material, or your elevator pitch to a potential investor or client.

The Genre
The Genre of the film has to be pinned down, fortunately or unfortunately, so distributors understand how to promote your film (if you are so lucky as to find a good distributor). The Genre and logline will decide the kind of marketing tools you will use. What posters or images? What stories or press releases? What color or mood? What kind of trailers or sneak-peaks? What kind of interviews or road shows?

The Actors
Most scripts are written on spec, without any guarantee they’ll ever be produced. However, a filmmaker writes a script knowing the film will be made, and it is almost criminal not to find your actors before writing the script. It’s always a good thing to know your actor so you can incorporate his/her idiosyncrasies in the screenplay right from the word go. Most new filmmakers try to force the actor into the character, often with disastrous consequences.

Publicity includes press releases and advertising, during the production of the movie, to build anticipation among the target market. It is an extension of the overall marketing plan, but most producers, even established ones, dive headlong into publicity with stories and interviews without a clear strategy. Big mistake. If you don’t have the skills to prepare, budget and execute a holistic marketing strategy for your film, then find someone who can.

6. Release, Sales and Distribution

A successful release of a feature film, according to popular opinion, is when the film has been released in enough theaters, then into television, and finally into DVD or Blu-ray, and beyond. Once a filmmaker has a marketing plan and budget in place, it is imperative he/she talk to as many distributors as possible to gauge the potential for his/her movie, and try to find a successful release strategy for it. Sometimes this strategy might involve not releasing in theaters at all. It doesn’t matter. The important thing is to remember this is a business, and earning a profit is the only way to survive. There is no room for a big ego here. A naive filmmaker will soon learn his/her place in the scheme of things when they talk to distributors. It is wise to have these meetings before spending any money on production.

Each country has different customs when it comes to distribution, and there are no rules. An interested distributor will tell you on what terms his/her firm might be willing to take on your project, and then it becomes a game of compromise and negotiation. A first-time filmmaker often has no choice in the matter, and must do whatever it takes, while trying to maintain his/her artistic integrity, to see the project through during this phase. Unfortunately, these skills can only be learnt by experience, and this is where the salesman in you must shine, or fail. A successful filmmaker must be a good salesman. If you cannot fulfill this role, find somebody to partner with who can, and hope he/she is honest in their dealings.

A proper release strategy identifies how many theaters (and what class of theaters) a film can be released in, whether you will need to make prints or digital masters for projection, on what kinds of posters or point-of-sale advertising you will need, etc. It will outline how you will get paid, under what terms. Selling to a network is tougher, even with money, and they will ask for perpetual screening rights, which you must try to avoid if you can. Often a television premiere must come a specific time after a film’s release. Some films that have bombed at the box office come to television quickly, to take advantage of the film’s marketing. The last in the line is DVD and Blu-ray, and then other forms of distribution like airlines, hotels, cable, video-on-demand, the internet, etc. Explore every avenue, even if it sounds silly.

Don’t underestimate the hard work and preparation that goes into the successful production and release on a feature film, no matter what its size.

7. Royalty and Maintenance

Here’s some bad news: Most films don’t find distribution. A major reason for this is that they have not been conceived to fit a particular target market. Those that have been conceived well are not made well. Those that fit a market and are made well might miss out just because there is no space to distribute them in the manner in which it will recoup its investment. Harsh reality, this.

If you’re one of those filmmakers who have planned and executed your project efficiently and correctly, you will see money. It is your responsibility as a filmmaker to collect money from those who owe you, and pay to whom you owe; simply because this is the best way to conduct a business and establish a good reputation.

This money will come in bits and pieces, in royalties, check by check, slowly and steadily, often over a period of years. If you’ve made a hit film, then the revenue never ends. You will have to keep your records up to date, and as a successful filmmaker you will realize a good project needs (what I call) Maintenance.

Talk about responsibility! Here you were, thinking you’ll just write a script and go shoot a movie – but it doesn’t work quite so simply as that, I’m afraid. It’s all about responsibility, as defined in Part One. Read it again now, and it will make more sense.

What about Film festivals?

You might be wondering why I haven’t written about film festivals. Why? Simply because it is not part of a business strategy. You cannot determine beforehand which festivals you will be selected for or win. There are too many factors involved. Furthermore, even if you win at some of these prestigious festivals, there’s no guarantee your film will find distribution or earn a profit.

Then why bother? A lot of people bother because that’s all the attention their film will ever get. No harm in this, and if nothing else, a good showing at an important festival is always an opportunity to network with industry-folk.

But be prepared at the onset to budget for some of the expenses:

  • Entrance fees
  • Screener copy and mailing
  • If selected, master copy (in the format preferred), shipping and insurance
  • Travelling and living costs of going to the festival and networking
  • Costs of marketing material like posters, business cards, etc

Try to budget for one festival, and then multiply this amount into the number of festivals you need to send your movie to. You will soon discover the costs involved. Is it worth it? Only you can judge. So judge well. To better understand this series, I recommend you read Making The Impossible Murder. All the best!