Saturday, November 14, 2009

AFM: The basics

The Great Trade Show
The first thing you need to understand is that the American Film Market is a trade show. That's all it is. It's no different than a farm equipment trade show where farming companies gather together once a year to examine the latest in tractors or cultivators or a furniture market (which is big in High Point, NC) where dealers from all over the country and even the world come to decide whether to buy 5,000 Flexsteel sofas or stick with La-Z-Boy.

The only difference between the AFM and most other trade shows is that the AFM is held in a hotel and most other trade shows are held in stadiums or massive warehouses.

I'm emphasizing that because it should effect how you approach this. Do you think a furniture dealer in Detroit cares how artful this beautiful sofa looks if the first time he sits down on it, the whole thing falls apart because it can't support his weight? Of course not. So why would a film distributor care how clever your story is if he can't hear half the dialogue or the whole thing was shot on a consumer handy-cam?

So the first piece of advice I can give a prospective filmmaker looking to attend next year's AFM to sell his finished film or script is this: before you shell out the $800 per ticket to attend the AFM, find some way to attend a trade show in some other business. Farming, furniture, appliances, it doesn't matter. You have an uncle who owns a hardware store? Beg him to let you attend his next trade show with him. You have an aunt who attends her company's fabric trade show? Beg her to let you carry her bags.

Attend the trade show and watch everything. Watch how fast decisions are made, how everything revolves around the buyers not the exhibitors. That will help you get into the right frame of mind to go out and sell your movie or your idea. I can't tell you how valuable my years working at the High Point Furniture Market was at the AFM once I realized it was all the same thing.

Most Buyers Are Also Selling
This is another crucial point to keep in mind. Never was this more impressed upon me than when I was waiting outside the office of a Scottish company that was big enough to have offices (they are very expensive so only the bigger distributors actually had offices) and had all the fancy movie posters and handouts and were taking meeting after meeting with high powered people ... and yet when the head of another company stopped by to ask a favor the head of the Scottish company practically begged her to accept a screener to his best looking film. Here was the head of a mid level distributor with a great looking film with a great cast, a fantastic poster, and one of the best movie trailers I saw all weekend ... and here 5 days into the market he was still begging people to look at his screener. Which, essentially, is the same boat I was in.

Think about that and you realize there's pressure on everybody and that if you're going to sell someone on your finished film or movie script, it'd better be damned good. More importantly, you'd better be damned good at selling your concept in 2 minutes or less.

As you walk into the room to meet with a company, understand that they were just in your shoes with a potential buyer 5 minutes ago. So you're going to have to knock their socks off to even keep their attention.

What Can And Can't Happen
So what can and can't happen at the AFM?

Can't Happen:

1) Getting investment money to shoot your script. I'm sure it's happened in the past, and maybe it even happened this market, but it's not going to happen to you any more than any of you reading this are going to win $50 million in the lottery. Do people win big in the lottery? Sure. But you're not going to.

Put another way to illustrate what I mean, are you going to quit your job and spend every dime to your name buying lottery tickets on the hopes you'll win big? Sure, people win big, but are you that confident that you will given the odds?

See what I mean? Your time is much better spent working towards realistic goals. Because you're not taking your script out there, meeting with 30 companies, and finding someone who's going to invest in your movie.

2) Sell an unfinished movie. So your principal photography is finished and you even have a rough cut together. But you don't have the sound or color correction right yet and you haven't even started on finding music. If that's the case, STAY HOME. If your only purpose in going to the AFM is to shop a movie that's 6 months from being finished, you're wasting your time. Distributors want to hear one of two things: Either "It's finished, here's the DVD!" or "It's about 2 weeks from being finished, can we send you a screener?"

If you can't deliver on that two week promise, you're wasting your time. It's not going to happen.

Can Happen:

1) Get distribution on a finished film. I saw this happen daily. There's a certain protocol you have to follow, your film had better be damned good, and you'd better be damned good in selling it, but it can happen. Of course, "distribution" can mean a lot of different things. Theatrical in the US? Direct to DVD? Overseas theatrical? Overseas DVD? Where overseas?

2) Get interest in a finished film. I ran out of screeners for 3 of my finished films. The companies will take them back, look at them, and get back to me. This was a pretty big step for us because distributors aren't accepting screeners to make the small people feel better. We got turned down flat out many times. So consider a successful screener handoff a small victory.

2) Get distribution interest on a nearly finished film. I managed to secure over a dozen invitations to send in Mind Breakers screeners when it's finished. Again, a limited victory and all you can ask for when a film is a couple weeks from being finished.

3) Presell a script on a regional or worldwide basis. A presell is getting distribution advance money for a script before you sell it. Essentially, a distributor pays you part or all of the money they'd pay you on a finished film but they do it before you shoot it and other distributors see how good it is and create an auction atmosphere. Its a distributor's way of getting you more cheaply than they might have to later if you really make an awesome film. But this is big for you because not only do you have distribution, you have some money to start making your movie.

Is this easy to do? No. You'd have to have either some names attached, a super incredible script, some or all of your financing in place, a well known director attached, someone well known in the business attached as a producer, something else that makes you stand out of the crowd, or some combination of the above. And even then it'd take an incredible sales job on your part.

Still, it happens enough to be considered a valid goal.

4) Secure distribution on an unshot script. Unlike a presale, there is no upfront money, just a guarantee your finished film will be distributed if it's what's called "acceptable industry quality". And it had better be. One distributor told us that if they sign this kind of a deal on a script and "the quality of the finished film is crap" they'd sue you. They have before. So before you try this angle, you'd better know you can produce a certain level of quality or you're asking for trouble.

This isn't as hard a deal to get as a presale because no money changes hands before the film is finished, but this is still a huge win for your script. Having distribution in place before you shoot gives you a little leverage when it comes to securing top quality actors and crew, to say nothing of attracting investors. If the best actors and crew in your area have to chose between two scripts and one of them already has a distribution deal, they'll probably pick your project even if there's less money being offered. Because, as I heard more than once during the AFM, a movie without distribution is nothing more than a very expensive home movie. Nobody wants to be involved in that if they can avoid that.

Still, getting this won't be easy either. Your script still has to be damned good and you have to be a damned good salesman, and it wouldn't hurt to have some of the elements mentioned above. But it can be done. Personally, I have quite a few distributors who agreed to read one or more of the 3 scripts I took out there.

That's something else to keep in mind. You're probably not going to get a deal done on your script during the AFM week simply because it takes time to read and absorb a script. Most distributors have so much going on they're going to have little time to read before getting home. Your goal is to get your script into as many hands as possible and hope for the best over the next couple weeks.

Next Time
On Monday I'll go over what a Director looking for work might be able to accomplish at the AFM, some things you can do to make your project more attractive, and answer any questions you might have.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Back From The American Film Market

Just got back from the American Film Market and I learned more about the indie movie business this past week than in my previous 39 years of life. I also made some great contacts and things look good on many fronts as far as my finished films and my new scripts so that's very exciting as well.

But in the coming days I'll be sharing some of what I learned at the Market about how to get films financed and distributed. I won't be sharing everything I learned because I don't want to give away all my trade secrets, heh, but what I can share should prove very helpful.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Heard From Afar ...

Apparently, one of the regular Stargate SG1 directors once said the following after a long frustrating argument with the network over some script issue:

"I'll show them! I'll shoot the script exactly as written!"


Saturday, October 3, 2009

Back in action

With the November 4th deadline (when we head out to LA to sell our feature films) fast approaching there simply hasn't been time to do a good job with this blog. However, I want to keep it alive so I'm going to switch gears over the next month and share some of our accumulated multimedia on those days I don't have time for a length information post.

First up is an outtake from a recent audio recording session. You can never overestimate how valuable it is to allow talented actors some freedom to improvise. Control freak directors who handcuff their actors are never going to have as deep or rich a wealth of material to work with in the editing room as more relaxed directors.

In these cases, the more broad you give your direction, the more freedom you allow your actors and the better the end result should be. Listen here as we give two actors, Robert Richard Wagner and Alexa Yeames some freedom to work. We didn't ultimately end up using any of this particular material, which is why I'm sharing it here, but you can hear the process and hear them working towards something. It's not always going to be perfect, but in this session we ended up with half a dozen excellent takes we're using for our feature film.

Audio Session Outtakes (Click link or right click to download)

Friday, September 4, 2009

Staying Sane

Whether you're an actor, writer, director, crew member, composer, or all of the above you're going to have to:

1) Make money somehow. If not in the filmmaking business then with a "day job".

2) Build your filmmaking resume so you can get higher profile and higher paying jobs.

3) Build your networking contacts through internet networking sites, meetings with friends of friends, and networking parties.

4) Keep your morale and motivation up when you're not catching breaks or when you're getting rejected left and right.

5) Take enough work to build your experience and resume and maybe make a little money while not taking so much work you're burning the candle at both ends.

This is a massive ongoing juggling act. The best way through it is to have a clear goal in mind and weigh everything you do against that goal. For instance, if your goal is to be a Director, you should only take the jobs (free or otherwise) that help you on that path. That might mean working under great directors in your area, taking classes, buying good directors lunch so you can pick their brains, or doing free work for a great director in exchange for mentoring. What wouldn't help you on this path is to spend a year as a set decorator who is finished working before the filming even starts. Sure, you're in the business but is that really helping your goal?

That's just an example, but you see the point.

This doesn't mean you don't take odd jobs to make money or gain contacts, it just means you need to give a higher priority to those jobs that will further your goal. If a six week job as a set decorator is going to keep you from a one week job working as the personal assistant of a great director, then your choice should be obvious. And it will be IF you have a clear goal and weigh everything you do towards that goal.

This is precisely why, as much as this blog means to me, sometimes I will go a week without posting. If writing here is taking away from one of my goal oriented projects, my choice is clear.

And it should be for you as well. That's one way to make sure you're not overextending yourself or that, if you are, at least you're working towards your ultimate goal.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


If you're only working on one project at a time, from beginning to end, then your life is simple. And you're probably not getting enough work to make a living. Which is why most experienced producers have many different projects going at the same time. You might have one in preproduction, one in production, and one in post production. And maybe you're circulating scripts to potential investors in the hopes you can get more projects going six months from now.

If this is the case, you need to always keep your eyes open for the opportunities to multitask. What if a friend has just granted you access to use a Doctor's office as long as you want this Sunday for the two page scene of your current movie? All this time you've been looking for a doctor to let you use his office during the one hour lunch break in the hopes you can blast through your two page scene, and now all of the sudden you have a fully stocked and dressed up doctor's office for all day if you need it.

Well, you could just come in and take your time with that two page scene and call it a day.

But what about that short film you did last scene that has that glaring plothole in it because you didn't have time or a location to shoot the secretary taking the call from your protag? This doctor's office has a great looking secretary station and you're already using a well dressed actress in your current movie for the main scene. Why not spend an extra half hour and knock out the scene that would greatly improve last year's short film?

And hey, your next movie currently in preproduction has that one page scene in a copy room! This doctor's office has a copy room, and the two actors for your next movie are already cast and willing to help you for this quick scene. Bring them in and knock that out too.

And wait a minute. The doctor's waiting room has one blank wall that's an interesting color. If you move all the chairs out of the way, you can bring in a photographer and take promotional photos for your current movie since all the actors in your current film are going to be here for the main scene. This can be done while the crew sets up for the scene inside the office. The actors would just be sitting around anyway, put them and that time to maximum use!

With a little creative thinking, you've just turned an insanely quick day into a full extremely productive day that helped you on three different projects. Given how hard it can be to assemble a crew and actors to all be at the same location on the same day without schedule conflicts, maximizing their time and yours is essential.

The only thing you have to watch out for is mixing in too many different things that you don't have time to do them all right or that you rush what you were originally there to do.


This Friday I've gotten access to a sound studio and I'm allowed to use it all day long for a much lower price than the place normally charges. Since what I needed was a narration for my current feature film, I was willing to pay bust out retail for the couple hours I needed. But now that the same price gives me access all day long, I'm also bringing people in to finish three audio plays that have been sitting on the shelf for a while, to provide background dialogue for some of my other films in post, and to record some interviews for this blog. I'll get enough interviews this Friday to post one a week here for six months.

So a day a week of content here for half a year, narration for one film, background vocals for two other films, and three audio plays finished ... all in a day's work.

Multitasking, when done smartly, can really get you ahead of the game if you're juggling more than one project.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Get out there!

I'm working on getting some more blog writers so that when I'm too busy to write someone else can slid in here. I'm also working on getting a universal logo so that this blog isn't just about ShadowDog Productions. I want this to be about the industry, not just about my business.

Get Out There!

The most important skill you can have as an indie filmmaker (whether that's writing, acting, directing, whatever) is networking. You should always be trying to make contacts, exchange business cards, and get yourself out there. This is hard for the Type B personalities, which most of us are. It's hard to walk up to someone, stick out your hand, and introduce yourself.

I'll be talking in a future post about where you can network, but for now, here are some tips on HOW to network:

1) Obviously, say your name and shake their hand. Everyone knows that, but that's because it's important.

2) Right after the handshake, ask them something about themselves. If there are nametags involved which list specific occupation, ask them about that. Otherwise ask them about their occupation. Ask a followup question. It's universal that people like talking about themselves so it's a good way to break the ice. Again, obvious but important and you'd be surprised how many people don't do it.

3) Next they'll probably ask you about yourself. Here's the hard part, be honest if you're good at something. This has always been hard for me because I'm not a raging egomaniac, but you have to promote yourself. If you don't blow your own horn, there's not going to be any music. So if you're an awesome writer or artist, mention that.

4) If you know two people who don't know each other at a networking party, bring one to the other and introduce them. This is very important because the more you do this, you encourage people to do it for you. Some of the best contacts I've made have been because someone I knew introduced me to someone they knew. Plus, if you bring two people together who go on to make beautiful movies together, they will always remember the saint who brought them together.

5) A less formal but another good way to cold introduce yourself to someone is to ask them a question rather than sticking out your hand. "Are you an actor, you have that suave actor look." "Are you a writer, you look very smart." Whether you're right or wrong, the ice is broken. The key is talking to as many people as possible. The natural instinct is to gravitate towards the six people you know in the room and hang out with them, but that doesn't get you anywhere. You're there to meet new people, or why did you come? Get get your ass out there and make it happen!

6) At the end of the night, cruise back through the room and say good night to everyone you met for the first time, shake their hand, and tell them it was nice meeting them (assuming it was). We all met a lot of people tonight, so this helps cement you in their brain and them in yours.

Networking is kind of like going through all the terrible parts of dating without being able to look forward to any of the fun parts ... a couple nights a month for the rest of your career. So that aspect of it can suck. But, on the other hand, most people are fun and interesting once you get to know them, so after that first night of introductions are out of the way you can forget about the awkwardness and the next time you see them, you know them!