April 28 marks the one-year anniversary of my Foreign Correspondents producer Julia Stemock sitting down with me and saying, "I will produce your film." It's also the one-year anniversary of the film's budget going sky-high. In the 365 days since then, we all went through the joys and terrors of casting, hiring, begging for money, filming, editing, and begging for more money. And waiting. And meeting people. Lots of people. Here are some things I have learned:
- 99% of industry people have no access to cash, power, or influence. Those lucky filmmakers who finish their project and get to walk into Miramax or wherever might be impressed - like I was - to be there. That's great, but nearly everybody you will ever meet is waaaay down at the bottom of the totem pole.
- Corollary: only 1% of the industry can actually "green-light" anything. Call it hearsay, call it paranoia, but I've been there on both sides: All those scripts get read by real flunkies - college interns, many of them. Some script readers are better off, making $25K a year and getting to hand the better scripts to their supervisors... who have supervisors... Meanwhile, all the big Hollywood films that really get made do so because they have a major star or director attached, and the deal is made "in the clouds" with top-name talent and executives. But don't give up hope.
- Showbiz attracts a lot of pathological liars. I used to say that the film industry was like any other business, and it is: you'll find nice people, nasty people, generous folks, and cruel backstabbers. However, I have learned that there is something about the allure of "sudden fame" and "overnight success" (myths, really) that continue to draw in a lot of people who have very active fantasy lives - and who truly, truly have a shaky grip on reality. Be forewarned. If anybody says they will help you become famous: remember lesson #1 on this list.
- There are loads of talented people begging for cast/crew work. If you want to make a film, you'll find no shortage of extraordinarily gifted people in all fields related to filmmaking, many of them fresh out of school or just scraping by. Don't think you need to pay $5,000 a week to some DP just because he shot a few music videos. You may find somebody much better who will do the work for peanuts.
- Still, everybody should be paid something. Aside from being the decent thing to do, this way you can contract people, and force them to show up in exchange for a salary. You don't have to pay them much, but see what a difference it makes when it comes to cast and crew loyalty. If somebody is giving you free work, then there's nothing stopping them from sleeping in late or just not showing up on a crucial day.
- Break the law. We did almost everything legit on the shoot of Foreign Correspondents. And I'd do it again. I'm too chicken to risk flouting the law. But I have seen an astonishing number of films get shot without permits, licenses, or anything. If you can keep from getting caught, you can save loads and loads and loads of money; irritatingly huge wads of cash get wasted on permits, police, parking and such. But need I remind you, you do face stiff fines if you are caught. Be brave but be smart.
- Do not break the copyright laws! This I do definitely practice. Shooting in front of a 7-Eleven? Better get permission. When the film is done and you have a character standing in front of a 7-Eleven, somebody in the audience who works for 7-Eleven might say, "Hey, we didn't allow that - we could make money of this - Let's sue the production!" No kidding. Clear every brand name and unique product that you can, if it's emphasized in your film. You don't need to call Levi-Strauss if your character wears Levi's jeans, but you should if your character says, "You guys wear Levi's? Levi's suck!" For example, I had to contact the French company who makes the postcards I use frequently in this film. They gave permission and wished me "bonne chance". As easy as that.
- A "DBA" is a wonderful thing. Or "doing business as". It's a great way to make writing off business expenses easier at tax time, if you call yourself "Joe Schmo Productions" or whatever. This is not at all as expensive or complicated as incorporating yourself. You register your "fictitious business name" (not as shady as it sounds) with your local county clerk, and you put an ad in your local newspaper - any one will do. Ever notice those "Fictitious Business Name" statements in the classifieds? This is what people do. It's the law. The whole thing will cost you about $70-80. But do it. It will save your neck financially.
- You're nobody 'til somebody loves you. The saddest truth of all. You make the best movie ever, yet nobody important ever returns your calls because there's no "buzz" about your film. You aren't "hot". Yet make a piece of garbage and if one important person thinks it's interesting, watch your phone ring off the hook. Everybody plays it safe, and then everybody jumps on the bandwagon. The best that you can do is wait for your actors to become famous, or hype yourself up until you're blue in the face - or get your film into a festival. Bonne chance.