Monday, May 25, 2009

Indie Writing

Recently, I appeared as a panelist at a workshop for independent filmmaking where, among other things, I was asked: “Is there any difference between writing an independent film and a commercial film?” My short answer to that was: “In theory, no”. After all, when we go to the movies, we want to watch a good story, regardless of the funding source. And a good story is a good story, once again, regardless of who pays to make it. But as we all know, theory and practice are two entirely different beasts.

For those who don’t know, there are really only two methods of film funding. There is the traditional Hollywood studio-financed film (including their specialty divisions, like Fox Searchlight). And then there is everything else, meaning anybody with money who’s willing to risk it to finance a film. The studios generally make movies for $50 million and above. Independents films usually cost $3 million or under to produce. (Those specialty divisions of the studios make films with budgets above $3 million, but significantly lower than $50 million.)

I’ve found that most aspiring writers don’t set out to write an “independent film”. Instead, they seek to sell their script to Hollywood and don’t give much thought to budget. Only when that avenue is closed off do they sometimes pursue the so-called independent route, and often without any regard to whether their script is suitable for that type of film.

Whether you choose to write specifically for a low budget, independent film or you’re seeking to go that route after meeting resistance selling to Hollywood, here are a few things to keep in mind:

– Your script should be free of special effects. If your script features explosions, car chases, fires or battles scenes, you can pretty much forget the independent film route. It will simply cost too much to film those things. And if you try to go the cheap route, well, you’ll get what you pay for.

– For the same reason, if your script takes the story to numerous outdoor and/or exotic locations, you have pretty much priced yourself out of the independent market. Travel, housing, crew, permits and the like will eat up a huge chunk of the budget. Few locations and plenty of interiors are what the independent budget is best suited for. Take a look at Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs for an example of this.

– Setting your story in any time but present day can cause the budget to explode. Costumes, cars, technology (old or new), and elaborate sets all present costs that can be prohibitive to a small budget. If the locations are almost all interior, costumes alone might not break the bank. Otherwise, it’s almost always best to stick to present day.

– One of the ways you can make your script attractive to an independent financing source is to feature characters that “name” actors will want to play. Actors are drawn to challenging and ground-breaking roles. They won’t care if the budget is small if the part is big. Your financier/producer will find it much easier to sell the film to distributors if they can market a “name” actor or two. After all, the exhibitor is only going to allow a film to take up a spot in their theater if people come to see it, and they’re more likely to do so if it features well-known actors playing juicy parts. Admittedly, this is easier said than done, but you should focus your efforts on writing great characters. (One caveat: as with locations, too many characters can chew up a budget as well.)

– Another way to attract a potential audience and, thereby, make the distributor and exhibitor more willing to go for your film is to tackle a provocative subject. I’m not suggesting you deliberately seek out controversy, but Hollywood is unwilling to take on certain subject matter that a somewhat sizeable segment of the movie-going population might have an interest in seeing. If your script fits that category, then it might be suitable for the independent market.

– Finally, the audience for an independent film is less likely to expect the traditional, three-act story with all the usual beats. This gives you some creative freedom in terms of structure and story-telling. Nevertheless, audiences still appreciate and look for resolution in stories. Heck, it may be the reason story-telling was invented. Therefore, you shouldn’t neglect the ending to your script. Just because the film isn’t going to be produced by a Hollywood studio doesn’t mean that all the elements of a good story need not be present. And a great ending is essential to audience satisfaction. In this regard at least, “theory” should be the same as “practice”, regardless of the funding source for the film.

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