Oh the joys of Independent Film making!
By Ernie John Hopkins
With our increasing movement into film ventures, all of the independent variety, I felt it was time for some observations. First, what few people realize is that independent films are one of the few remaining vestiges of true voluntary contractual free market ventures left in the world. No one is coerced into making, funding, or seeing any independent film project as of this date. The subsidy game is primarily one of tax credits in limited jurisdictions and genres. While there are grants from various governmental and quasai governmental groups for certain film types to promote the latest propaganda fad, these are far and few between. Most film making is very similar to a grandfather of mine wildcatting for oil in the early 1900s. High risk, expensive, a mix of art and science, and with potentially great residual income. Part of my purpose in this piece was to help educate would be artists and investors as to the process and headaches involved. As a result I am going to cover the basic players and their roles, which will include some general sequence of events. One thing the reader should keep in mind is that this being a free enterprise arena there can be as many variations as human beings can conceive and agree to!
Author/Script Writer - This is the seed. Until a script is written there is no product. Ideas are not products. Outlines are not products. They are all just foreplay. Getting the script written is successful intercourse with the chance for a baby. Since many movies get their start as books or stage plays I included the author with the script writer. Both of these positions are artistic types of people. Ever wonder why so many times the book and the movie vary so much? What do you think is going to happen when artist A turns over their work to artist B? B is going to make A's work what it would have been if B had come up with the idea! While artistic egos are a play part and headache, in defense of the writers for the screen medium, they have considerations a paper medium artist doesn't have. Fancy descriptions and elaborate settings have a cost of ink and paper for the author. For the script writer this is very expensive sets, shootings, actors, etc. Even with the best of intentions, certain modifications invariably become necessary. That is why it is 'based on the book by" in the movie credits. It is also why the industry prefers to simply buy the author out and prevent ego clashes while they make a movie.
Production Company - This is who takes the script and actually gets it into a real hard copy movie. It too is filled with lots of very creative artistic types who tend to add their own flavor to the project. While the public is generally aware of the actors only, it needs to be kept in mind that all of the film crew, special effects people, etc. are just as essential and artistic in their own right as the actors. While creating truly moving artistic works when successful, it can also be a very trying and stressful work environment. A note on the production company from an investor view point. They should be able to provide a good pre production budget and, assuming no one changes the plan drastically, stick with it. Since they will get their money as the film progresses it is important to have a good handle on this aspect of the project.
Executive Producers - These are the money men. They raise funds for the project, allocate where the funds go in the big picture, help negotiate pay off, residual income shares, marketing options, etc. They also many times act as the arbitriter between various highly strung egos.
Agent/Legal - Depending on the project there may be several of these involved. We tend to like to have a central legal player to work around whose job it is to look out for the contracts, author/writer relationships, copyright, and dispute settlement. Note that dispute settlement for us is sitting down at a table to hammer out a win win. If things go to a court room we consider dispute settlement as having been a failure. It is a simple matter of economics.
Investor - This is the little known key player that makes it all possible. For those that would turn their nose up at that statement I would simply refer them to the various sites that describe movie cost and gross revenue. The majority of films never pay back their investors' base investment, much less a profit. Why would these people still invest, one may ask? Because, like oil, when a big one hits it hits huge. A word to the wise investor, this is a high risk field. Know your team, do your own due dilegence, and be able to lose the entire sum without missing a meal. If you hit well on your first investment, do not get cocky and assume it is proof of your brilliance. the variables to film success are many most uncontrollable.
As a summation film production is exciting, challanging, creative, and can be very financially rewarding. It is creation from word to visual scenes of mankind's creative vortex. All aspects have an excitement and challange that is missing from the typical highly regulated monopoly style business most people work in. To all the artists of all aspects of the industry I tip my hat and bow!