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Three Steps to Heaven? Part One

Distribution experts Mick Southworth and Martin McCabe present the first instalment of their three-part guide to conceiving, making and selling a truly independent film.

On the back of the heels of some strong sales performance at this year’s Sundance, Berlin and Cannes film festivals, market prognosticators and industry seers alike have been quick to proclaim a resurgence in the independent film sector. At Sundance, films such as Another Earth, Like Crazy and My Idiot Brother attracted healthy minimum guarantees and realistic distribution commitments from both studios and independents. At Cannes, such distinct fare as The Artist, Melancholia, We Need to Talk About Kevin and Tree of Life garnered plaudits and strong sales prices.

Resurgent industry mogul Harvey Weinstein of TWC was even quoted as stating that 2011 “was one of the best festivals in the history of Cannes”. Anecdotally, business is the best in years; smiles have returned to the faces of sales agents, private equity is back, genre is strong and VOD and transmedia are gaining significant ground.
This all represents a distinct turnaround from the doldrums of recent years, when too many films went unsold or couldn’t find a home, months after overheated market screenings. Then the market collapsed under the weight of dire external financial conditions, over-inflated values and a glut of expensive, poorly-executed ‘faux indie’ pictures often driven by market-minded studio speciality divisions and well-resourced new distribution groups keen to get a foothold in a then-declining marketplace. Hamlet 2, anyone?
Now, a sense of rationale seems to have returned to the sector. Distributors are again willing to spend—for the right product and price—while film budgets have reduced and speciality fare is being more rigorously targeted at its intended audiences. And this apparent resurgence is further bolstered by the increased profile of new players such as Netflix, Vudu, LoveFilm, Amazon, Blinkbox (recently acquired by Tesco) and Google, whose desire for chasing greater control of production and primary exhibition rights are placing a renewed emphasis on the primacy of original content and an increased awareness of the value of new technology.

It’s true to say that this valuable course correction has yet to play out in terms of box-office receipts and returns on investment for some newly interested parties, but it does bode well for the health of the ‘indie’ sector in general. This growing seller’s market may yet herald a creative as well as financial resurgence, and it now seems that, if you have a project to sell, now might be an opportune time to produce it. With all this in mind it is prudent to give consideration to the plight of the independent producer, and the painful steps often required to see any creative concept through from inception through to general release.

Part One: Making the Baby
I think we can safely say that low-budget independent producers are stark raving mad. Why would any rational person speculatively undertake to develop an idea from scratch with little or no guarantee of the eventual commercial value, then beg, borrow and steal to find the cash to actually make the movie? Then, as if that wasn’t tough enough, they go through the arduous and, more often than not, soul-destroying effort of trying to get the film to the big screen. And all this while inevitably battling those talent egos, tight-ass cash flows, crew, location and filming problems—as well as the small issue of getting the investors’ money back.

Most independent films that are not TV transmission money-driven, are original ideas usually conceived for the sole purpose of being containable, comfortingly cheap and, most likely, because the key idea is like another film in the marketplace that seems to have some commercial worth. The other primary reason for generating original content is that you don’t have to buy the intellectual copyright; successful book or comic-book rights really aren’t cheap. And, more to the point, you will actually own the copyright yourself, not just to the original film, but also to the many sequels once the first film breaks box-office records and cleans up at the BAFTAs. Then there’s the inevitable mega-budget Hollywood remake, the TV series offshoot and ancillary stuff such as toys, book deals, gaming rights…

Now you can see how it becomes a compulsion, can’t you? It is, if you get lucky, an achievable dream that could become a sparking reality. A lot of talent has been discovered by walking down this path. And unless your old man is Steven Spielberg, Jerry Bruckheimer or the like, it’s probably unlikely that anyone is going to lay it on a plate for you. So, with that in mind, it’s probably the best—and only—chance you’ve got to show everybody your God-given talent. (Or, of course, a chance to inadvertently shoot yourself right through the foot if the film turns out to be a dog’s breakfast!)
They say the hardest thing about writing a novel is the first word. In the movies, it’s the roller coaster of emotion. Once the process starts, the producer invariably gets carried away on a wave of excitement, euphoria and expectation. The creative side is always the fun bit. The boring stuff happens a lot later, when you have to come and meet jaded distributors like us to try to help get your film made. But, we never tire of the wonderful passion that exudes from an independent film producer. It’s unlike anything else in the industry; they are blinkered in a positive way to the perils that inevitably lie in wait, and are always determined and focused on the goal ahead. It is an admirable trait, but it can also be a potential recipe for disaster if they are not careful to set about things in the right way from the outset.

Vertigo Films’ joint CEO, Rupert Preston, recalls the strategy he and his associates employed when assessing the material on the brilliant film Monsters, prior to its production. “For production sales we kept it simple with Gareth Edwards,” he explains. “Sometimes simple is best. He had an extraordinary VFX showreel which genuinely left you open-mouthed. Plus he had a very cool pitch—it was going to be the world’s most realistic monster movie, shot with a minimal crew and two actors. Three months later he was in South America shooting. What could go wrong? Gareth is a unique filmmaker with an extraordinary vision. What was crucial for us was that the world he set the movie in was a genre with a fantastic core fanboy audience. He then made an intelligent, original, well-crafted film that worked brilliantly well without the special effects. Once he added the effects we knew we had something special.”
And an eventual box-office return of £5m plus from theatrical alone against a production spend of £250k seems to back up Rupert’s early confidence.

Development money is normally the first step for the new guys on the block who really want to give it a serious shot and get the right package together. The bad news is that development cash is as rare these days as unicorn crap. In many instances a producer can inadvertently piddle on his or her own chips simply by racing out of the traps too early. It is a fact that unless a major star, director or key talent is signed, sealed and deliverable, the script must be exceptional before being presented to potential buyers and finance partners. You wouldn’t try to serve up a half-baked cake at a dinner party and expect people to swallow it just because you got all the ingredients right, would you?

Leading film and television agent Greg Hunt, of UK ten-percentary Independent Talent Group, says the best approach is to not work in a vacuum. “If you can get your chosen writer, director, and star on board as early as the synopsis/treatment stage then your chances of getting the eventual script taken seriously and thus funded, increase considerably,” he says. “Michael Winterbottom and Danny Boyle are just two of many who have established themselves over the years by working with solid reliable partners in those key areas.”

Coalface industry distribution, sales and finance folks are deluged daily with a ton of mostly unsolicited material and they very seldom, if ever, revisit a project once it shows up on their system as a ‘pass’. You never get a second chance at a first impression. Dave Shear, head of theatrical distribution for Revolver, has a very direct message for any producer who comes to him. “Alas, we don’t have any guaranteed bankable stars in this country, outside of Jason Statham, and to a lesser extent Danny Dyer,” he reveals. “The thing to be clear about is just who the film is actually for. Pick an identifiable audience and cater the film accordingly.”

So, there you are. You have managed to land some development cash from your granny and granddad who think they are giving you money for a much-needed kidney transplant. You have the first draft in for the fantastic genre low-budget murder/thriller/comedy set on a West Country farm entitled ‘Who Shot the Goose?’ A casting agent agrees to make a few calls and get it ‘looked at’ by some close thespian chums, while you head off up to London to kick ass and run your big-screen idea past the money people, lawyers, agents, financiers, distribution and sales companies that can turn this dream into a reality. Or is the nightmare just about to start…?

In the next two instalments of this three-part guide to making and selling an independent movie, Mick and Martin will look at everything from finalising the script to finding a director, dealing with lawyers, securing the budget and managing the distribution process. ♦

Related: Three Steps to Heaver: Part Two

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 23 (July/August 2011) – ON SALE NOW

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