Kim Production Diary: 5 Steps to Writing a Business Plan

Kim Production Diary

We’ve finished writing our business plan for Kim, the last step before we can seriously begin fundraising. It was an interesting process, and it forced us to think through 5 basic aspects of our production.

The first was figuring out how to define the film, and how to talk about it in a way that is both true to our vision and compelling enough to get people as excited about it as we are.

Practicing the “elevator pitch” with anyone willing to listen was really important, until the pitch was refined to a point where most people react to it with an enthusiastic “that sounds like a great film!”

The best bits of advice we found for this were: “describe in one sentence your story, and the twist that makes it different,” and “when you touch their hearts, they’ll open their checkbook.” We had to learn to describe our film succinctly in a way that is emotionally moving.

The second thing we had to work through for the business plan was a thorough and realistic budget for the film. To talk about that in detail would probably take a few blog posts, much more space than I have here today.

The third thing was to look at other similar films and see how they did financially. We looked at low-budget psychological science fiction films, that played down action and violence, as well as films that were more artistically oriented and films that played with the conflict of reality and fantasy. While this can’t give us any guarantee how Kim will perform, it can at least show us how it might do.

Fourth was to research and understand film marketing, and all the opportunities and challenges facing independent filmmakers today. We worked to identify our films assets – its strengths and the things that make it unique, then how to identify audiences that value those assets, and then how to contact and communicate with those audiences.

And fifth, was to look at the distribution options available for independent films. This proved the trickiest part, because it’s the thing most likely to change in the 12-18 months between now and when post-production is finished. We made an inventory of all the current distribution options, everything from VHX to Vimeo-on-Demand to iTunes to Tugg, to traditional theatrical distributors. We’ll have to continue monitoring and researching all options over the next year so we’ll be prepared when the film is finished and ready for release.

I hope you found this quick overview of our process for writing a business plan interesting, and helpful if you’re working on your own film. For us, it’s on to raising the money to make Kim, More on that as the process proceeds.



Filmmaking Resources Update

I haven’t updated the site for a while with any new resources for Independent Filmmakers. Here are some interesting sites and articles I’ve come across recently.

First off, here’s any amazing interview with Morrie Warshawski, author of Shaking the Money Tree: How to Get Grants and Donations for Film and Video, on raising money for the arts, with a focus on independent films. It’s a little dated on internet stuff, but solid on the timeless aspects of fundraising.

Interview with Morrie Warshawski

Here’s some great advice on how to find name actors for low budget films.

13 Ways to Cast A-list Actors in Mcrobudget Films

Next up, is Film Freeway, a site filmmakers can use to submit to film Festivals. Created as an alternative to Without a Box, Film Freeway is always free for filmmakers (no added fees added to the festival submissions fee) and it has HD online screeners, unlike Without A Box whose online screeners look terrible.

Film Freeway

I linked to this in an earlier post, but it’s worth repeating. It’s an article detailing how Tangerine, a hit at Sundance this year, was shot on the iPhone 5s. It’s essential that independent filmmakers start thinking creatively about how to save money and use their resources wisely.

How One of the Best Films at Sundance was Shot Using and iPhone 5s

Finally, here are some great tips from Mark and Jay Duplass for low budget filmmakers. I love their emphasis on the 250K film, both to retain control and to make sure your money is being used wisely.

This Is How You Do It: 10 Filmmaking Tips from Mark and Jay Duplass



Kim Production Diary 2

Kim Production DiaryAn ongoing series chronicling the production (pre, shoot, and post) of our new movie Kim.

I met with Elle, our Production Designer yesterday, and we had a good talk about the look of the film. We discussed what genre Kim belongs to and agreed that though on the surface it’s a science fiction film, Kim might be better thought of as a surreal dream or nightmare, at least that’s a productive way for us to think about it as we develop the visuals. I like the way Elle thinks. This meeting gives me confidence we are on the right track.

We talked about visual references for the film, Bosch, Escher, Guy Maddin, Under the Skin, but I also suggested she look at Tibetan Buddhist art. It has a deep spiritual character I would like to capture, and a strange balance of stillness and movement, especially in the sculptures. I suggested she visit The Rubin Museum, a treasure trove of Himalayan art and one of my favorite places in the city (free Friday nights to boot!)

I commissioned Elle to do some pre-production art, so we should see some of her work up on the website soon.



Kim Production Diary 1

Kim Production DiaryAn ongoing series chronicling the production (pre, shoot, and post) of our new movie Kim.

This is the first post in what will be an ongoing diary of the production of our new movie, Kim, from pre-production, through the shoot and post-production.

We’re very much at the beginning of the pre-production stage right now, so it’s a perfect time to start a production journal. We’ve got our script, an 80-page feature. We’ve assembled a great team: myself (Bob) as Writer/Director, Producer Leeah Odom, Composer Lenny Gonzalez, Cinematographer Matthew Boyd, and Production Designer Elle Kunnos de Voss.

We have a website for the film that we will continue to develop as the production evolves.

Producer Leeah Odom and I are having weekly meetings either by phone or in person to discuss the film, review the previous week’s accomplishments, and set goals for the next week,

At this point, we’ve identified four key areas that we need to focus on.

1. Finalizing our budget and business plan, so we can start up our fundraising push.

2. Finding a location for the shoot.

3. Beginning to search for and audition the cast.

4. Create awareness and buzz about the project.

More on each of these as the weeks go by. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy these insights and behind the scenes peek at the nuts and bolts of film production.



Startup Film School Podcast

I’ve come across a wonderful new podcast series presented by Stacey Parks, whose website Independent Film Blog I mentioned in an earlier post.

It’s called Startup Film School, and it’s basically a primer on film financing, distribution, and marketing. These podcasts are simply amazing! All independent filmmakers should listen to them.

The podcasts teach through interviews with independent filmmakers, so you get to see actual success stories and learn what works in the real world. It covers everything from developing a business plan, to how filmmakers use The American Film Market, to how one filmmaker made a feature film for $500.

Stacey’s main focus is encouraging independent filmmakers to make movies that make money, so they can have sustained careers. One episode covers in depth the “5 Steps to Getting Your Script Market Ready.” Here’s she’s not talking about making the most commercial movie ever, but how to make your film attractive to people who might actually finance it. She covers these steps in an interview with filmmaker Brooks Elms so you can see how it works in an actual film in production.

5 Steps to Getting Your Script Market Ready

1. Do Your Research. Find out how similar films have done financially so you can have a realistic idea of what your film can do in the market place.

2. Develop a Budget and a Business Plan. How much will your film cost to make and how do you plan to make that money back (knowing, of course, that all filmmaking is a risky venture)?

3. Put a Team Together. If you approach investors as a writer/director working alone your project is not going to be that attractive. But if you put together a team with an experienced Producer, DP, Casting Director, etc. you’re going to make your project more attractive.

4. Put Together a Cast with some Marketable Talent.

5. Develop a Pitch, with Compelling, Professional Visuals.

The podcast goes into much more detail about all of these steps. Check it out, and the rest of Stacey’s podcasts, right now!

Startup Film School.



Screenwriting 101: 14 Tips For Writing a Great Screenplay

In a previous post, I explained how striving toward a goal against obstacles is the heart of drama. Here’s more tips for writing a great screenplay.

1. Trust Your Inspiration.

Something got you excited about your story. Was it a single image? A character that grew in your imagination and fascination? A scene you can’t stop thinking about? A theme that you want to explore?

Trust that inspiration. If it got you excited – and you do the hard turn it into a great screenplay – it will get others excited to.

2. Don’t Rush.

Give your ideas time to gel, to grow into living, vivid stories. Let your unconscious do it’s work. Let the ideas mull inside you, turn them around in your mind. You’ll know when it’s time to write.

This doesn’t mean procrastinating. If you find you’re never finishing anything, you have different problems than rushing.

3. Make Your Film About Something.

Why is this story important to you? Why would it be important to anyone else? What are you trying to explore about life?

A great film is more than just a good plot, interesting characters, and witty dialogue. What do you have to say that is unique? I’m not talking about a message film. Art should explore questions rather than give definitive answers. But a good film is about something important, something meaningful.

Even comedies can be about something. Look at Groundhog’s Day. It’s not just about someone stuck in an absurd situation. It’s asking “What does it mean (and what does it take) for a selfish, jaded man to become a better person?” And it doesn’t go for an easy, pat answer. The film shows that it’s hard work.

But don’t settle on your on your approach too quickly. Discover it in the writing process. Write with compassion and empathy for other people.

4. Don’t Settle For Easy Solutions

Writing a great script is the most difficult part of the filmmaking process. Any writer who says otherwise is not doing the hard work and is settling for the clichéd and the obvious instead of new and surprising.

A few years ago a meme was going around the internet called Pixar’s 22 Rules of Good Storytelling. This was the most important of them: “Discount the first thing that comes to mind, and the second, third, fourth, fifth. Get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.”

5. Be Truthful.

Be truthful about the way you see the world. If, for example, you think violence is never a good solution to problems, are you going to present a world in which heroes commit violent actions without consequences?

Be truthful about human behavior. Rigorously. Far too often in bad scripts characters don’t behave like real people, but only act for the convenience of the plot. Ask, would someone really do that? Then, would your character really do that?

This needs to be a constant effort. It’s so easy to fall into clichés and formulaic ideas about situations and people without even realizing it. It’s so easy just to push a character where you want the plot to go. If something doesn’t feel right, recognize it, identify why, and fix it.

6. Think About How Scenes Will Be Shot.

You’re not just writing a story, you’re making the blueprint for a film that will need to be shot. Is what you’re writing shootable? Will it be as clear onscreen as it is on the page? Are the things you are putting down in words able to be shown visually?

Learn a little about film production, so you will know what it takes to shoot a scene. Learn a little about editing, so you’ll know what it takes to tell a clear story.

7. Don’t Overwrite Dialogue.

A look, a line inflection, can convey what you may be tempted to go on for paragraphs about on the page. Think about how a line will be performed. One parenthetical can sometimes replace many lines of dialogue.

A simple action description like “He pauses for a moment, then gives her one last, aching look” can replace too on-the-spot dialogue like “I don’t really want to do this, but it’s important to you, so, yes, I’ll do it. because I love you.”

People don’t always say what they really mean. People aren’t always able to express themselves articulately. Honor that in your script.

8. Read Your Dialogue Out Loud.

Make sure your dialogue is actable. Sometimes things sound good in your head, but not on your tongue

9. Give Supporting Characters Their Own Needs And Desires.

One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen in poorly written screenplays is having every single word, thought, and action of every supporting character revolve around the protagonist’s story.

In real life, every person is the star of his or her own movie, and you need to have some sense of this in your script or the supporting characters become ciphers, plot devices that have no agency, and ultimately are boring to watch. What are your supporting characters doing when they’re not in the film? What’s going on in their lives right now? What are their goals and obstacles?

10. Develop Subplots.

Subplots are a crucial tool in writing a great screenplay. They expand the world and make it seem more real. They make the film seem less self-indulgent. They allow you to explore themes more deeply and can serve as a counter-point to the arc of the main protagonist. They make the world seem rich, nuanced and alive.

11. Think In Terms Of Sequences, Not Scenes.

In my previous post on screenwriting, I talked about the importance of having goals and obstacles for your protagonists. But as I pointed out then, you shouldn’t just think about overarching, movie-long goals. You can also think about smaller goals that cross over scenes to create little sequences inside your movie. This helps give your screenplay structure. It also helps punctuate your film with focal points that create rhythm, dynamics and tension.

12. Don’t Over-Rationalize Everything

Life is messy. Art is messy. There’s a fine line between a great work of art where every aspect is necessary and important, and an overly-determined story where everything fits together like a jigsaw puzzle.

People act irrationally. They mess up and don’t always do what’s best for themselves. Life isn’t always fair and a random accident can change someone’s life forever. Respect life’s chaos.

13. Re-write!

Good writing is re-writing. I’m not the first one to say this, but it’s absolutely true. Don’t settle for just okay. Anything that isn’t great, that you don’t love, revise it or get rid of it.

14. Know the History of Film.

What’s in vogue now is just what’s in vogue now, and it will be passé next year. The more you know, the more tools you’ll have when you need them.



Screenwriting 101: Goals and Obstacles

Goals and Obstacles

Most screenwriters have at some point come across the standard formula for writing screenplays. It goes something like this:

Good scripts involve a protagonist striving for a goal against obstacles. The obstacles get bigger and bigger as the movie goes on.

Additionally, the protagonist has some kind of personal growth that needs to be achieved, which has left the protagonist in a kind of emotional stasis at the beginning of the film. In the end, the protagonist must achieve this personal growth in order to overcome the final, greatest obstacle and accomplish the goal, or fail to change and lose.

Furthermore, a good screenplay is divided into three acts and there are specific milestones you should reach at specific points in each act. For example, in the first act, there is an Inciting Incident that disrupts the protagonist’s normal life. About halfway through the second act, there should be some kind of twist: things are not what they seem, or a friend betrays the protagonist, or a major new obstacle is thrown into the mix, etc. In the third act, right before the protagonist achieves his goal, there should be a moment when it appears all is lost. Conversely, if the protagonist eventually fails, there should be a moment when he appears to succeed.

I could go on, but you get the point. Some of this just boils down to common sense. The three-act structure is just a way to say that a film has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The Inciting Incident another way to say every story has to start somewhere.

But I hope you can see how limiting this formula is, as if there is only one type of story that can ever be told. A dogged adherence to this formula is one of the reasons for the bland sameness of so many mainstream movies; they all follow the same rhythms, the same plot beats, the same character arcs.

There is one essential truth to be taken out of all of this: a good story involves a character striving against obstacles towards a specific goal.

This is the heart of drama. It keeps the audience involved and drives the narrative arc forward.

But how this plays out doesn’t need to follow any standard formula. There are so many more possibilities. Let’s take a look at three classic films and see what lessons they have for us.

Citizen Kane

In Citizen Kane, the specific goal that pushes the story into motion is the journalist trying to find the meaning of Kane’s last word “Rosebud.” It’s through his interviews with the people who knew Kane that we see the mosaic of Kane’s life story. But the journalist is not the protagonist of the story; he has no personal arc that allows him to achieve or fail at his goal; his search does not provide the emotional momentum of the story; and the eventual answer does not provide the audience with the ultimate solution to the puzzle of the film, but is simply a small piece in it.

The search for the meaning of Rosebud is the framing device that gets the audience into the story. Important, yes, memorable, yes, but not the spine of the movie.

2001: A Space Odyssey

What is the main goal this movie? Answering the mystery of the monolith? This is more a goal of the audience than the characters. The prehistoric ape-men of the first section aren’t interested in answering the question. Dr. Floyd in the second section is, but the astronauts aboard the Discovery during the third and main section of the film, don’t even know about the monolith. Their main goal is to stay alive when their life support is entirely in the hands of a malfunctioning super-computer that wants them dead.

This struggle for survival makes up the largest section of the movie, but in a 140 minute movie, this narrative arc isn’t even introduced until 50 minutes in, and the problem is resolved with 25 minutes left in the film, so only about half of the film involves this story and the entire last act does not. Again, it’s an interesting and memorable element that keeps the audience involved, but it’s not what the movie is about. No single character goal provides the spine of the picture.

The Godfather

Even a movie like The Godfather, the most traditional of these three movies in terms of narrative, only tangentially follows this formula. I had a writing teacher who suggested that the specific goal of this movie is the Corleone family trying to stay out of the heroin business. This sets the main action of the film in motion, but it’s not what the heart of the film is about. The film is about many other things: capitalism and crime, the cost of loyalty to a corrupt family. Coppola himself says that when he was making it, he identified the main theme of the film as “succession” and referred back to that theme whenever questions arose in the production. The film is far more than can be summed up by a single specific goal.

In each of these films, you can see how giving characters specific goals to achieve and throwing obstacles in their way drives the story and keeps the audience engaged. Whether in overarching goals for an entire film or smaller goals for individual scenes, this is the heart of drama.

But beyond that, formula is just formula. The arcs stories can take are as endless as all the variations of the human condition.

Always make your films breath with life and imagination and daring.



Functions of a Scene

When working on a script – or more specifically when in the re-write phase – I find it really useful to think about the functions of a scene.

Any scene can:

  • Reveal Exposition or Back Story
  • Reveal Character or Relationships
  • Develop Character or Relationships
  • Advance the Plot
  • Create a Mood
  • Develop the Theme of the Movie
  • Entertain or Amuse

This list isn’t meant to be exclusive; it just represents one way I like to look at things.

I find it crucial to make sure any scene in my script accomplishes more than one of these functions, preferably at least three. For example, if I need to include a scene that provides back-story to the audience, I make sure it serves another function too. At the very least it should be amusing or entertaining, but even better the scene should accomplish something else: show something new about a character or relationships, create a mood (tension, eeriness, romance, levity, etc), advance the plot.

Or if I just had a sequence with a lot of tension, I might want to follow it with a humorous or romantic scene to lighten the mood, but I still want to make sure that scene serves other functions too.

The more functions any scene has the better, without overloading, of course. This leads to a nuanced, layered script, rich in detail and emotion. It helps keep the audience engaged by creating a world full of depth and breadth and helps create a film that rewards return visits because the film is always working on many levels at once.

Have I left out any scene functions that you find useful?



Plot vs. Story

As I was working on the rough draft of my new screenplay, I found myself thinking about the difference between plot and story. We’re always told that we should eliminate anything that doesn’t advance the story, especially in a screenplay, which should be simple and direct. I recently took a 6-week intensive on film editing at The Edit Center (an excellent program), and they also stressed, if it doesn’t further the story, cut it out.

This is great advice, but you’ll get yourself in trouble if you confuse plot with story. Yes, everything should advance the story, but everything doesn’t need to advance the plot.

I can explain with an analogy and with a concrete example.

First the analogy. If you think of making a movie as bulding a house, you can think of the plot as the frame of the house. The frame, like the plot, needs to be well made and well-designed. The material needs to be durable. The rooms need to flow nicely into each other. You need to have good natural light from the windows. You shouldn’t put the kitchen on the third floor or the boiler room right inside the front door.

But all of that by itself doesn’t make a house you want to live in or visit over and over again. That takes the right color of paint, comfortable and aesthetically pleasing furniture, maybe some ornamental fixtures, or some stained glass on the windows, tasteful artwork on the walls, a nice carpet, a modern, clean and efficient kitchen, a luxurious bed, etc., etc. Those are the things that make a house a home. Those things are the story.

A concrete example:

We all know the film The Godfather (if not – and do I even need to say this? – spoiler alert). Think about the scene after Sonny has been killed and Don Corleone takes his bullet-ridden body to the undertaker and tells the undertaker. “Remember you owe me a favor? I want you to fix up Sonny’s body so his mother doesn’t see him like this.”

You don’t need that scene for the plot. You could perfectly follow the story if you just cut that scene out.

But it is such a wonderful scene for so many reason: it ties things back to the very opening of the movie, and it does it with irony, since that’s not the kind of favor we expected Don Corleone to ask; the opening scene seemed to portend something much more ominous. The scene also shows us how much Don Corleone loves his family and how he tries to protect the women in the family from the consequences of the business and so is echoed at the end when Michael lies to Kay for entirely different reasons.

It’s an amazing, rich scene that resonates throughout the movie. It’s one of the scenes that everyone remembers and talks about. But it’s not plot. It’s story.