Out there in our wonderful but often difficult world there are millions of would-be filmmakers, some with just great ideas, others with the capacity to write a script and perhaps as you’re reading this you are, or know, one of them. But for every 100,000 scripts only a tiny percentage ever get made. Why is that? Hopefully my experience and feedback will help show you why with some simple and common sense tips.
Problem One: “I’ve written a blockbuster!”
You think your script is the best thing since ‘sliced bread’ and cannot understand why hardly anyone else thinks like you do. Solution - get a top professional to review your script and seek plenty of input from your peers. Find another writer who has had their film financed and ask them to review it. Try to use someone with a similar genre outlook. Get as many reviews as you can.
Problem Two: Genre “It’s a horror, Sci fi with a romantic twist set on a desert island which is invaded by pirates and comical CGI dinosaurs set in ancient China with kick boxing elephants….”
Focus on what is the true genre of the film. Unless you do, you will have real problems pitching the project. Financiers need to know what market you’re aiming at so they can judge if it is worth backing. Be crystal clear as to what genre your film falls into and if it falls into several, have a re-think and find which is the most dominant. Is it a really a comedy, or just an adventure film with some witty lines now and then?
Problem Three: It’s a two hour epic.
Most films that get released are around 90 to 100 minutes in length and they are that length for tried and tested reasons with audiences over decades. The James Bond library is probably one of the few exceptions to that rule but that’s James Bond. Solution - interestingly those 100 minutes equate to about the same number of pages you will need in your script. So if you are already at page 135, stop now! Go back and review it, there are probably scenes you do not need and could easily be linked by a quick flash back or a voice over or something a character says earlier on in the script. If you are only on page 46 and it’s the final scene then you don't have a feature film yet.
Problem Four: The pitch.
There is a well-known saying in business that if you cannot pitch your project in an elevator, forget it. Not that you’ll actually have to pitch it in an elevator, the expression is simply to get you focused on delivering your pitch quickly and with a certain degree or urgency and clarity. Solution - review the key elements to your script, what is it that is unique about it? If you could only say ten words about your film, what would they be, and why? Come up with what is known as a “Logline”, a short succinct and powerful statement that can help anyone you meet visualise what your film is about. Perhaps there already exists a film or two with similar themes. Often you may hear Hollywood producers or directors say something like “it’s Bourne meets Inception“ or “Gladiator but set in the year 2100". Statements like that immediately conjure up a vision and that can be far more powerful and grab the attention of the listener. Then follow up with your hundred word, pitch. Do not confuse “pitch” with synopsis, the latter is more detailed and something that would normally be read by the recipient later. Have fun doing it and test it out on friends; it is important to get it right, but remain open to change it until you find a pitch that thrills your audience!
Problem Five: Lack of preparation.
One of the most frustrating areas for any producer / financier is the amount of ill prepared projects they see. Scripts with grammar issues, inappropriate camera referencing, non-standard script layout or software use, lack of reference to who wrote the script and when! Yes I do even see scripts with the writer’s name missing! A writer / filmmaker who has not given any thought to the budget, locations and cast is not going to impress a potential financier / producer. If your script has four battle scenes with a cast of 400, it is unlikely to be able to be shot on a micro budget in a field near London. But it is amazing how many would-be film makers don’t think that through when assembling their promotional pack. Solution - start thinking about putting together a Promotional Pack. This will include key elements like the script - which has been grammatically checked, page-numbered and the right length, maximum of 120 pages. The synopsis should be no longer than one or two sides of A4, giving an outline of the story. The treatment is optional, but not necessary, for the initial Promotional Pack, but worthy of putting together. This will be a far more in depth analysis of the script with character background and visionary elements. The promotional information document is a colourful six to ten page document that will have an attention grabbing front sheet; your first concept of the film poster, logline, synopsis, cast wish list (don’t go mad, Brad Pitt is probably not going to be interested...just yet!). For the crew you should include yourself if you are planning to direct or produce and any close friends or colleagues who are happy to be involved. The more experience the better. Do add photos and bio’s to bring the document alive. Finally, finish with a shoot time line, if you have an idea and comparable titles and of course, your contact details.
Problem Six: It’s easily a $5m film...is it?
One key reason why some films never get made is the writer / film maker is totally fixated with a budget that has actually no real place for a film of its time and genre. Yes in an ideal world Warner or Universal would come along with a big fat cheque book and off you go, but not in the real world. Solution - start thinking the opposite, perhaps just having fun with how you would make it if you only had a week and £1,500 to spend then add a zero and another week and then one more. Now you have three scenarios, the latter with £150,000, and three or four weeks to shoot but in arriving here you have the knowledge of what could have been done on less and no doubt found lots of ways of cutting on costs, crew and cast. Buy or borrow some budgeting software or ask around and find a helpful line producer who may do an outline budget on spec or for a fee you can afford. Emphasise that you want two versions of the budget, one on minimum wage the other at a level that is more ideal if the money could be raised. At the end of the day you will probably settle somewhere between the two.
Problem Seven: I can’t afford a decent cast can I?
My budget is low, how can I get a good cast? Solution - take a long hard look at your script and you will soon find that there are probably only two or three key roles that need actors for ten days or more. The rest you can probably source through various casting sites and you will find many young actors will work for free, deferred pay or just a minimum wage. There are hundreds to choose from, if not thousands, depending on the role. I advertised once for five characters on casting call and had 2,800 replies! To filter through the not so talented, start by looking at those with a decent showreel and filter from there. Regarding ‘named’ actors, they too like to be in work. It is vital they have continual credits on their CV, some will admit that they lose their touch if they are not working regularly. That’s why many will consider low budget films (often well under £200,000). Chat to a couple of casting agents or a producer who has sourced actors in this way. Through their long standing relationships with agents they can put scripts before actors, who are normally £1,000 or more a day and have them consider your low-budget fee for five or six days’ work. It is just about catching the actor at the right time and when they have a gap between larger projects. The results can be incredible, so don’t write off your chances of getting named talent until you have actually tried!
Problem Eight: Location...they want how much?
If you go to a locations agency, you will find your tiny budget will be eaten away. Solution - firstly it’s back to basics and the script. Can you minimise or change locations to keep costs down? At first you may think not but I am sure you can. Do you know another producer / director who has used a similar location to what you need? Maybe they can help get you discounts. Ask actors, too; often they have filmed recently on another low budget film. If you need a house, is there someone in the family, or on your social networking sites, who can help?
Problem Nine: Finance...where do I start?
As I said earlier, you cannot just sit around hoping some studio, or wealthy investor, is going to walk in with a big fat cheque, although some of you have probably been waiting a year or more for that to happen already before reading this! Solution - if your budget is tiny, say less than £10,000, then you may wish to look at crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and IndieGogo. There have been some great success stories, but much is about selling something unique, so do spend a lot of time looking at film projects on those sites and see what seems to be working and what is not. Get yourself on LinkedIn and link up with chat forums where you can post your project for potential producers, financiers to see. Go to the festivals themselves and network as much as you can. Find someone to buddy up with who knows the ropes. For budgets up to £150,000, consider looking at the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme ("SEIS") - this is a scheme approved by HMRC which encourages investors to invest in small companies. The book ebook will provide you with a very useful background on the SEIS.
In summary, qualifying SEIS investors can claim Income Tax relief at a rate of 50% and no Capital Gains Tax on any profits from their investment into a SEIS. There is a limit of up to £150,000 per SEIS scheme. SEIS also allows investors to reclaim 100% of tax paid if they reinvest their money into another SEIS backed venture. In November 2013 the Financial Times reported that over £82 Million had been raised in the last 18 months through the scheme. Clearly it has been an astounding success and something every budding filmmaker should consider. If your budget is higher than £150,000, then SEIS is a great way of you securing initial equity which will put you in good stead when discussing your film with sales agents. You may even be able to combine two EIS schemes (i.e. SEIS for the first £150,000 and EIS for the following £4,850,000 of required monies). At Sapphire Capital Partners LLP they specialise in helping film entrepreneurs structure this correctly and apply to HMRC for the SEIS and EIS advance approval on your behalf (Contact Sapphire Capital or read our guide to film production and SEIS.
Problem Ten: Tax credits.
Surely I should shoot in Fiji as they give one of the highest tax credits? It is true that places like Fiji often provide local government tax incentives of 50% or higher based on the amount of spend in that territory. Some budding filmmakers get totally distracted by these high incentives. Solution - if your budget is small then you should really only look at the UK as the logistics and costs of filming abroad will far outweigh any benefits. However, if you have raised money via SEIS then it is worth looking at a potential co-production. Canada has long been a viable source and longstanding agreements between Governments make it a viable option. It could well be worth investing a few hundred pounds in a film lawyer to help guide you. Eastern Europe is now becoming very popular, offering great locations and low cost crew. Even big budget projects such as Game of Thrones have seen the benefits in filming there. Farther afield, even countries like Azerbaijan are now coming to the fore and we expect to see good incentives next year.
Should you wish to send me a script - please feel free to email it directly at firstname.lastname@example.org - I look forward to hearing from you.