Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Independent Film Clichés: An Opinion

Submitted by Peter John Ross

From the Actor’s Point of View

The Casting Call

Here's a story that will probably sound familiar. You hear about an audition. Someone posted a flyer that said something about a short film that's in the Sundance Film Festival. This sounds interesting.

You, the actors, and aspiring actors go to a cattle call for a no budget digital video short. You wait in line, although the group pf people sitting around at the public library is hardly organized enough to be called a line. You get asked to read sides and the first time director doesn't know what a slate is, but he isn't taping the auditions anyway. You leave wondering what kind of movie this could possibly be given that you read a fragment of a script that had dialog as interesting as an insurance actuarial table. After your call back a week or two later, you read the lines again, and talk about other stuff with the director including your dreams an aspirations.

The Call Back

At this point, they tell you the game plan for this incredible movie. It's a twenty minute opus about an everyman that is in some kind of struggle and it's completely original. The goal is to shoot the movie on digital video, send it to film festivals, and then get the money to re-shoot it on film. Of course there's no pay. They can't afford it. But this is a unique opportunity because the script and idea are just that good. You ask about distribution and you are assured that after the film plays at several festivals it will have a distribution deal. At that point everyone will get paid. They say this with such conviction that you buy into it.

The Shoot

You work twelve hour days on your weekend off, the first time director is giving you line readings, and there is barely any craft services to munch on while everyone stands around. Eventually you finish, and you can’t wait to see the movie. Over the next few months you try calling, then e-mailing the director to get a status report. It's still being edited. Eventually you may or may not ever see a finished product, but waiting for that film festival screening seems to be as likely as finding weapons of mass destruction in the filmmaker’s basement.

If this has happened to you more than five times, then you are an ideal candidate to attend an Amway meeting with me. I have just the right opportunity for you.

And now for the flipside...

The Filmmaker’s Point of View

You rent movies all the time. You go to the movies all the time. You have always loved movies, and you just saw the latest Steven Seagal movie that went direct to video on Showtime and you say to yourself, “I can do better than this piece of garbage!” and you have this idea that has been brewing for at least ten minutes. You download the latest freeware screenwriting plug-in for Word and start banging away. The story unfolds and the dialog sounds really good in your head.

Now what?

You read about Soderbergh and George Lucas using home camcorders to make their movies, so all you need is a Sony Handicam and you can become the next Kevin Smith! Because it's a camcorder all you need to do is point and shoot. There’s no need to know anything about lighting or cameras. You remember seeing something about Kevin Smith and the Sundance Film Festival, so when you finish the movie, you'll just send it there, it will be accepted, and you'll get signed to my three picture deal at that point. It should take about three months.

Now you need to get people to be in the movie, your masterpiece. You can hold a casting call. The casting notice reads “Actors Needed for Short Film for the Sundance Film Festival.”

The Casting Call

You can't believe these people want to be in my movie. Look at all of them. You want to savor this moment and see each actor one at a time. Then you see her and she looks really good, so forget first come first serve, get that girl Jennifer in here now! You want someone to look and act exactly as you pictured the movie in your head. With sixteen people waiting to see you at least five of them should be perfect.

The Call Back

Why isn't anyone exactly as you pictured in your head? Jennifer was really good looking and she really seemed to like you. Should you cast her solely based on looks? She can't act her way out of a paper bag.

The Shoot

Nothing is as good as you thought it would be. The actors aren't doing exactly what you want and you even tell them how to deliver the lines. You know you wanted to do more camera angles, but you were running late. Everybody is mad at you and you can't seem to get it right. You can fix it all in the editing. You can't afford to buy another pizza, so whoever is late, is just out of luck. No food for them.

The Edit – Day 2

This is fantastic, this is great. Sure there are warts, but the core of this, the idea, it's so good. You can't believe you made a movie!

The Edit – Day 30

You don't feel like editing today. You just worked a full shift at the store and you’re tired. Instead you see which re-run of Seinfeld is on.

The Edit - Day 66

You’re finally finished. You can't believe you edited the whole thing yourself on a home computer with your bootleg copy of Adobe Premiere. Every word of the script is included and it's perfect. You show it to your friends and family and maybe the cast. They'll tell you if anything's wrong because they are completely unbiased.

Screening Day

You can't believe it! Your mom, your best friend, and the lead actor loved the movie! You were right. This is a masterpiece. You wonder what time the limo will be here to pick you up. Hollywood can just somehow smell talent and no doubt they'll find you. When they do, you'll hire all your friends and all these actors to work with you and Tom Cruise and make Mission Impossible 4.

After the Screening – 11 Days Later

It's been almost two weeks and still no limo. Maybe the people who smell talent have a head cold or there was a flight delay in Chicago for the connecting flight.

After the Screening – 17 Days Later

You get an e-mail today from one of the bit-part actors, what's-her-name, and she has the gall to ask if you had submitted the film to any festivals yet. She doesn't understand that you are an artist and that you have a day job too. You'll get on it soon.

After the Screening – 24 Days Later

You looked into submitting the film to Sundance and it costs twenty-five dollars. Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick, all of these film festivals want money. What kind of sick bastards charge filmmakers money to submit their movies? How many submissions can they possibly have? You can only afford two, so you will definitely send your film to Sundance because that's the big one. For some reason you were under the assumption that either the film festivals were free or that the entry fees wouldn't apply to you. You guess you should have done the math. Twenty-five dollars by eighteen film festivals equals $450. That's more than your Sony Handicam camcorder.

Rejection Day - Late November Every Year

You get a letter in the mail. You can't believe they didn't pick your movie. You went to the Sundance page and looked at the movies that did make it. Why would they pick movies directed by Matthew Modine or Danny Glover? What’s this? Kevin Smith got in too? I thought these people were already famous. Why are they premiering these Hollywood movies? Why didn't hey pick my mediocre movie with no stars shot on digital video? I better avoid all contact with anyone associated with the movie. I'd rather them not know than have to tell them.
I guess I won't be able to make another movie...

How to Avoid This Very Common Scenario


When you audition, ask about the plan and the distribution. If they can't afford to pay you but plan on sending the film to several film festivals then something is wrong. Do the math. Each film festival costs at least twenty-five dollars whether the film makes it in or not, and because of simple odds (thousands of submissions, tens of slots) the movie won't get into a lot of film festivals. If the filmmakers can't afford to pay for decent meals, how in the hell can they afford to submit the film to festivals?

Now I'm not saying you shouldn't do the movie. That's not my point at all. I guess my point is just BE REALISTIC. Know that you are doing it for the experience. There are pearl's in the clams occasionally, and you won't find them if you don't look. There are some good movies and good directors, but it may take time and a few movies before a first time filmmaker becomes one.

There are other options that can make the experience and the work worthwhile. Don't be afraid to suggest...


Plan for the entire movie. Budget for the entire movie. That includes money to market the movie. The common mistake is that you spend all of your money making the movie, and then it sits and collects dust because you find out that everything costs more than you thought. Plan for it. Whatever you think it will cost, have double the money. Did you really think that because you shot your film on digital video that it would be that much cheaper? That's insane.

BE REALISTIC. The chances of getting into Sundance are slim, and winning anything, or getting distribution is a pipe dream. First of all, digital video shorts with no stars are generally as valuable as rat feces. There is no real distribution and short films, even with stars, have very few outlets for display, and even more rare are places that pay for them.

Film festivals are great but they are expensive. Plan ahead for the money you will spend submitting your film to festivals and know that you may not get in. They don't refund your money when you don't get in. Also for your information, audiences at a regular film festival range from twelve to seventy-five people, and most of them are the filmmakers and actors of the other films that got accepted. Unless your movie is about filmmaking, this may not be the best audience to judge your work.

Make movies for the experience to start. Don't be delusional. Do you want to help yourself, your film, and the actors who starred in it? Get some exposure. Get your work seen by as many people as possible. Put your film on the internet, public access television, and anywhere else you possibly can. Get your actors seen by as many people as possible. That's the least you can do.

You have to ask yourself why you made the movie or why you got involved in the first place. Was it to get famous or make money? You're better off buying lottery tickets. You'll have much better odds in a casino. Did you make your movie to tell a story? Great, now share it with people in as many venues as possible. Film festivals are good but expensive. Have other options available.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say this was fantastic, thanks