The story of getting a film made ........again!

Bill Cullen and Irish Film

Come January, the Irish Film Board will be without a CEO, so here’s a thought – put Bill Cullen in charge. Better still, why not make a reality TV show out of it, a cross between “The Apprentice” and “Project Greenlight” with a dash of “Ireland’s got Talent” (I know the latter doesn’t exist, let’s not dwell on that too long). For every month of one year, 12 filmmaking teams all come before Bill and present their film project. Every team is set the same task every episode and the first task would be “Make your Pitch” and that pitch has to be to people like Morgan O’Sullivan for instance or someone similar, who knows what it is to sell concepts to studios and TV networks in order to stay in business. At the end of each episode, a score is awarded each team and they carry that forward to the next task. Other tasks would be to have your script independently rated by a panel of 3 professional script analysts, have an independent audience rate your marketing campaign, poster, logline and two sentence synopsis, next you’ve got to shoot a 5 minute segment in a day and again the result scored. Each episode would see a team eliminated until the winning team are awarded a budget of €500k to make their film. Over the span of a year we have twelve competitions also generating a wealth a TV content and advertising revenue and ultimately 12 films that are guaranteed to attract a whole lot more audience than the current spend of €17 million is achieving right now.

Some of the above is, I will admit tongue in cheek, but the point I’m trying to make is not and that is – nothing was ever improved without competition and a clear focus on the consumer. Or put another way – meritocracy over patronage. I’ve said this in a previous post and I’ll say it again. You can’t keep doing the same thing and hope for a different outcome.

Here’s another thought. What about a reconstituted IFB. Now more than ever, the spend of tax payers money is under close scrutiny and every euro must and should be justified. Right now a budget of €17m is handed over once a year to be dispensed, as is seen fit with no obligation to make money back for the state. I know a lot of that money is given out as loans and as such is required to return. Very often it doesn’t because the obligation only stands if the film makes money. No, what I’m suggesting is a new IFB set up as a state body with a commercial remit. So over a period of 10 years, the body is required to achieve 100% cost recovery, building 10% per year. This would focus minds in the direction of the consumer and that’s no bad thing. Many high minded artistic types I know would scoff at such a suggestion and complain that their artistic integrity would be compromised. If so then go make your films with your own money.

A while back, I spent a couple of days on the set of “The Tudors” in Ardmore Studios. During a chat with Morgan O’Sullivan, he related to me how in his early days as an Irish based producer, he perceived a lack of craft and experience in Irish film practitioners. So before he took on anything else, he took a bunch of people to LA and immersed them in filmmaking in the worlds capital of film. On his return, I think his next project was “The Mannions of America” and he’s never looked back. That’s simply identifying the problem and taking action to remedy it. The opposite of hoping for a different outcome whilst…..well you know the rest.

So, why are Irish films only commanding 0.3% of domestic box office share and virtually nothing of International, with a spend of €17m per annum. Could it have something to do with the quality of scripts or lack thereof. Let me make this point and I say it in IFB’S defense, maybe the scripts that are getting funding are the best of what’s coming in the door, because being a State agency, they have to spend their budget. A particularly depressing thought for those of us who could wallpaper walls with rejection letters, but the jury is still out on that one. Eight years ago or so, the legendary Ed Pressman along with some Irish partners and John Schmidt of Miramax and October Films, announced with some fan fair in Galway the launch of “Content Film” in Ireland. On offer was a pot of money to make low budget films at, I think €1m a pop and all they were waiting for was the scripts. A few years later in conversation with one of the Irish producers I asked where’s the first Irish “Content” film. I was told none was ever going to materialise. It turns out they were inundated with scripts, not one of which was worth developing, never mind shooting. Today, Content Film International is a dynamic film sales and finance company, specialising in high quality, commercial feature films. They just quietly slipped away from our shores. Sad but true.

So what’s the answer. How about shutting down all production for a year or even two and putting Irish screenwriters through an intensive training program. Well it worked for Mr. O’Sullivan and I suspect the good Dr. Bill wouldn’t  argue with that either (once he’d fired half of them in the first place). I could just hear him now, “Yiz are all a shower of namby pambies, get off yer arse and sell your film….before you make it, den you’ll know if you should make the bloody thing at all”.

Script Pipeline notes on “In God’s Garden”

Recently, the film’s producer and I debated where we would go to further develop the script of “In God’s Garden” which right now is at an advanced stage and considered by the Film Board to be an accomplished script. Not so long ago Yahoo used to host a film industry chat show called “Shoot Out” hosted by two heavy hitters Peter Guber and Peter Bart. All aspects of the industry were up for dissection and discussion, bringing in some of the biggest names in the business from screenwriters to directors, producers, agents etc. On one particular show the subject up for discussion was writers and how to gain a foothold in the business. Interacting with professional and knowledgeable script editors was seen as a priority and Script Pimp (Pipeline) was mentioned in very favourable terms.

This week we got the notes back from Script Pipeline. They were incisive and insightful and made a point of highlighting the existing strengths of the script in terms of it’s unique take on an popular genre, it’s strong marketable qualities and given another draft or two could prove to be very attractive to a strong cast.

More importantly than that though, they provided me with a road map of where the script could be tightened and strengthened, recognising that a very strong narrative was already at play with believable characters. They drew particular attention to the quality of the dialogue in the script.

A little while ago I wrote a post about readers reports and views of drama analyst Yves Lavandier on the subject. These notes from Script Pipeline are a prime example of how they should be compiled. Taking care to point to the strengths that already exist while at the same time offering notes on a new draft that never seek to undermine a belief in one’s own abilities.

Over the next few weeks I will be absorbing those notes and working on a new draft or maybe two. Come the New Year, we intend to have a script which will attract both a quality cast and production finance.

Is Screenwriting a career option in Ireland

As with any creative endeavour, people find themselves drawn to whatever rocks their boat. An examination of ones own motivations is part of the process, but equally so, two other aspects worthy of consideration are these: 1. How much in terms of investment in time and money will be required to bring myself to a level of at least proficiency, so that I can earn an income and 2. Is there a market for the skills that I have acquired to render that investment justifiable.

I don’t believe that good screenwriters are born, I believe that they are honed from many hours of studying the craft by reading scripts, watching movies and writing on a consistent basis. There are always the prodigies who appear to knock off a brilliant script in two weeks and then go on the make films that break all the rules. Exceptions to the rule only prove the rule and besides, look at these films more closely and apply a little reverse engineering and you’ll find that in actual fact they pay close attention to what they appear to cast off, they just camouflage it very well. Of course when you mention rules, principles or paradigms, you are immediately labelled “Hollywood” and in the European film culture, to a large extent disregarded. But remember the only thing that Hollywood has succeeded in doing is build on the theories and observations of proponents of drama writing going as far back as Aristotle’s poetics 3,000 years ago and beyond. Give someone possessed of no craft the best set of carpenter’s tools and at best you will end up with an object of little use other than fire wood. On the other hand a good art film will throw out most if not all the rules, yet provide the viewer with an experience rarely achieved by “conventional” movies.

Those who find themselves drawn to make films and who perhaps posses a gift for transposing a script to gobsmacking imagery, find they have little alternative but to learn to write a script first. What happens if they prove themselves to be very weak at this. When Hitchcock was developing a script, he worked with story writers or scenarists until he was happy with that element of the process. He then passed that work on to dialogue writers as he believed some writers were good at story, but crap at the spoken word and vice versa. How many great Irish directors have we lost because they grew tired and frustrated at attempting to be good screenwriters before getting the chance to create their sublime images.

If you have decided the the investment is tolerable, then the question is, can screen writing in Ireland sustain you. David Kavanagh of Irish Playwrights & Screenwriters Guild has said that most screenwriters in Ireland earn between €10,000 to €15,000 a year. I would suspect writing copy for radio soap ads would earn you many multiples of that. That kind of return is only justifiable if achieved on a part-time basis and that is perhaps one of the reasons why Irish films are failing at the domestic and international box office – it’s a part time activity. I’m not making the argument that screen writers should be paid more money (not because I don’t believe it, it’s just not likely to happen) but rather, is it not time to raise our sights and see that the film business is now global therefor, more of an effort to comprehend and penetrate that wider market should be made.

They say the definition of madness is to keep doing the same thing, while expecting a different outcome. The landscape in Irish film is unlikely to change for the forseeable future. Perhaps it is time to look beyond this little pond and begin to understand that maybe there are opportunities to be found beyond these shores.

Make a low budget feature film – 1

OnceOkay, so nobody’s succeeded in talking you out of it, you’re hell bent and determined to create your feature length movie and make the industry sit up and take notice. Well that’s good, you’re gonna need all that vim and vigor to get to the finish line without losing your marbles, house or family or maybe all three. I don’t want to scare you, but I do think, before everything else – be aware of exactly what you are taking on. Remember I’m not advocating this route, but if you do take it, don’t re-invent the wheel. We’ve all been inspired by the low budget breakout films that have stormed film festivals and went on to catapult their creators into power positions within the industry. What you don’t hear about are the countless efforts that have ended up unfinished, the only relic being a shoe box full of memory cards. And that can happen you unless you carefully plan your venture and that’s where this post begins. At the end of the day if you can end up with a movie that you are proud to include in your CV, then you have succeeded and whether you realise it or not, you have also advanced your career.

Blair Witch ProjectI know it’s a cliche but it’s true, if you fail to plan – you are planning to fail. So I would suggest pushing out the first day of photography by 12 months. I know that sounds a lot, but more than likely you’ve got other obligations and I presume you don’t want them to suffer either. Don’t throw away any advantages that don’t cost money and time is one. When it comes to low budget you’ve got to think carefully about the story you’re going to tell in this sense, keep cast numbers small and locations few, because if you don’t, it will cost you.

First things first, get your hands on at least half a dozen successful low budget features. Films like “Paranormal Activity”, “Napoleon Dynamite”, “Following”, “Once”, “His & Hers”, El Mariachi”, “Open Water”, “Blair Witch Project”, “Clerks” there are any number. Watch them then watch them again and read reviews, then ask yourself, what got these films noticed and compelled people to pay to see them? If you don’t know how to write a script – learn. Keep the script to under 90 pages and when it’s ready spend some money on quality coverage. A good source is Script Pimp because apart from industry recognised development notes, it’s also a pipeline into the industry.

Paranormal ActivityWhile your script is in development, you can be getting on a with a few other things, such as gathering your core group together and nailing your locations (as few as possible, check out some films shot almost entirely in one room – “12 Angry Men”, “Dinner with Andre”). Enthuse them with your story and vision and they’ll be only too willing to help out and learn to delegate, you won’t have the time to do everything. First off find someone who’s nifty at building websites and a whizz on Facebook and Twitter because now’s the time to begin to build awareness and an audience for your film. Hopefully that same person will be savvy in traditional media also, don’t ignore old media. But the most important role you will have to fill is that of producer.

If you’re writing and directing, as much as possible keep your concentration on the creative side. What your looking for is someone who has demonstrated an ability to plan and execute plans and basically get the job done. Together draw up a strip board (if you don’t know what that is – look it up) from the script, it’s gonna take a bit of time, from this you can pull a shooting schedule, there’s lots of software out there that will help you get the job done. Ensure you have rain cover in the schedule. Once again in the spirit of “preparation is key”, you as director should draw up a story board (again – look it up). You don’t have to stick rigidly to it, but don’t walk on to your set without it, it instills confidence all around that you know what you’re doing – you’ve got a plan.

ClerksI’m taking for granted that you’re not going to be in a position to pay cast or crew. Most everyone else can get up to speed, but if you have to spend money, then spend it on you camera operator. He or she is going to at least ensure that your shots are properly lit and exposed, the composition is good if not inspired and movements are logical and smooth and one other place to splash the cash (if you have any at all) is your sound recordist. There’s nothing as bad as getting to the edit, finding your film looks great, performances are great and your sound is shit. Just don’t go there – you have been warned.

As for your cast, one good tip here, populate your story with young people as much as possible. They’re simply more available and more willing to do it for nothing but the chance of stardom. Go to “end of year” shows put on by acting schools, remember the vast majority of great actors started there and you could find the next Colin Farrell or Eva Birthistle.

I’m not going to touch on funding in these posts as there are a million ways to do it and it’s something you should figure out for yourself. When you have your cast gathered, spend whatever time you can rehearsing them. By that I don’t mean going over scenes interminably, but rather ensuring everybody knows and understands their characters and the world they inhabit. You’re looking for that magical moment when the talent take possession of their character.

Other than that remember, many people are joining you on a journey you have instigated. Be appreciative of that fact, treat everybody with kindness and respect, but at the same time make sure as much as possible that you stay on schedule. Making a film can be a heap of fun, but only if you get it finished.

Other posts on this subject will follow and I may update this one as I go. Good luck with your film, I hope it knocks them sideways. Speaking of “Sideways”……….!