Every person's path to learning how to be a filmmaker is different. When I set out to make my first feature film I was working as a database designer at a large corporate firm and dying a little inside daily.
There came a tipping point where I needed an exit strategy from the world of cubical farms that didn't involve a coffin and Daros Films was created. While still designing databases, I undertook my first feature, Greyscale, during nights and weekends. It challenged and bolstered me in ways I didn't expect, and while it was one of the most difficult things I've ever set out to do, it's also been one of the most rewarding.
The friends and film family I've made along the way I wouldn't trade for the world, and working with a bunch of daydreamers like myself has led to a lot of us escaping our daily routine and pursuing our dreams.
This blog is a repository of all the lessons that I hope not to forget as I continue on this path as a filmmaker, storyteller, director, actor, editor, producer, etc.
Oh, and that corporate programming job? Let's just say that a lot of hustle got me a full time position a salaried director making feature length documentaries in Nashville, TN.
Yesterday we went over needing to know Why you want to get into film.
Today I’d like to stress the importance of Story. I’ve learned there are two aspects to every creative position involved in a film: The Proficiency of Craft and the Understanding of Story.
Proficiency of Craft takes time, experience, and research to hone, whether you’re a writer, director, DP, editor, actor, etc. They each have their own paths of expertise, and while it’s beneficial to have at least a cursory knowledge in the other fields to hold an intelligent conversation with the people in those positions on set, your team will be the strongest when each person is working within their wheelhouse of Craft experience.
The whole of the project benefits from the shared Understanding of Story on both the general principle level and the specific-to-the-project story. The director’s job is to be the caretaker and the one to guide the Story, but the better every department knows Story the more cohesive the crew can act to give a focused finished product.
The lighting and appropriate lens usage, the editing and framing choices, the performances and score supplementation for the proper emotional balance… all work together to serve the singular Story of the piece, so the more educated each member of the team is in Story, the better off the project will be.
.:What is Story?
In short, Story is the Why of each project. I won’t wade too deep into those depths or get too terribly philosophical because there are folks far more educated on the theory of Story and how that applies to our daily lives and our art. But, for the sake of brevity I’ll distill the three areas a neophyte should focus on paying attention to.
1) Theme – Knowing the theme of the story will inform a lot of creative choices and let you know what the work is trying to say.
2) Structure - The vast majority of what you watch in theaters falls under a very similar structure, so when you see something that falls into the minority, something feels off, and unless you’ve studied the structure, you’ll probably not be certain why. Warning: as with pulling back the veil on most every illusion, movies will by and large start feeling very formulaic, and you’ll note the theme being stated within the first 5 minutes, the inciting incident happening around 12 minutes in, and the first to second act change around 25-30 minutes in… but unless you want to make your work accidentally off-putting, it’s worth learning.
3) History – Study great films of the past. I really recommend skipping the weak ones… not so much because the bad techniques might rub off on you (although they may), but you’ll recognize the general similarities between your work and theirs that inhabit making a film and despair for your own work… Study the greats (read that tidbid from Walter Murch). Nothing is original. Originality is just mashed up sources to an unrecognizable digest that’s processed through your experiences and setting.
Write and shoot! Nothing teaches you like hands on experience. I don’t care if you’re using a camera phone and are acting things out with your dogs in place of characters from The Godfather (just don’t expect someone to color you brilliant after posting that to YouTube… post responsibly), learning from your mistakes is a big step forward, but there are many rookie gaffs that can be hurdled if you give due diligence for reading and watching before you set out… just don’t be afraid to set out because you don’t feel ready because you’ll never feel fully ready (and those that do feel fully ready aren’t letting themselves be stretched by projects).
Again, Story is deep, deep waters, but if you’re just starting out, these are some basics I feel pretty secure in saying is a good start.
I only have so many words in me daily, and since November they’ve been given to my first novel, so if you’ll forgive my lack of consistency with this blog, I’d like to share a new series of posts for anyone interested in getting started as a filmmaker (and yes, I know most of the lessons learned are by someone that was just starting out, but I’d like to cover the first basic steps).
Film is difficult to transition from hobby to vocation. Many people are passionate about filmmaking, and the thing about passions are that they are usually the things you would pursue even if unpaid… which is a necessary precedent to start off with but one that’s incredibly hard to transition away from, especially if you’re wanting to continue to tell your stories.
A brief aside, I’ve learned the person with the funds is the one that picks what story to tell.
But let’s say you’re still firmly in hobby-land. Film interests you greatly, and you’d love to make it your vocation. How do you build a following? How do you get invited on to other people’s sets? How do you even make a film?
There is one crucial question you need to ask yourself before you take your first step:
Why do you want to make films? There are plenty of filmmakers out there now that the cost of admission equipment-wise has plummeted. I don’t bring that up to discourage, but more to stress the importance of knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing.
Knowing why you’re pursuing film will help you find others like you with the same why that can compliment your skillset, effectively creating a family and crew that you need in order to get started. Eventually when your Why leaks through your film, an audience has a better grasp of what the film is about and will click in and eventually become your most vocal supporters–your base.
It may be because you can’t imagine yourself working in a cubical farm for the rest of your life. It may be because you see how much culture is shaped by media and you want to toss your voice into the cacophonous mix. It may be because you just enjoy being on set and seeing a finished product come to fruition. I don’t know, it’s your why.
If you aren’t sure what it is right now, I think that’s all right as long as you know to search out why you’re making film. The one caution I can offer is that if your Why is because you want to become famous or boost yourself, you’re not going to stand out, nor are other people going to share interest the Why of You.
As this series continues, I’ll get more technical and how you can even make a film if it’s just you wearing every single hat on the simplest of projects.
After managing and/or running twosuccessful Kickstarter campaigns back to back, I learned some lessons the hard way, and was delightfully intrigued by other quirks. I’d like to share some of my newest lessons learned.
Lesson #1 – Get to know the 5 backers you’ll meet on Kickstarter.
1) Family/Close Friends with disposable income – These people will support you with sharing your project and with money, regardless of getting anything in return (some will even choose “No reward” just so you can make the most of it) just because you are the one behind the curtain.
2) People involved in the project – Some people who have given their time and effort will continue to do so monetarily because they still want to see the creative endeavor they have already invested in come to completion. They want to see you succeed, but they also want to be able to point to something they worked on as a finished product.
3) 2nd Degree Backers - People that you don’t know, but know someone who pledged are a good metric that your campaign appeals beyond just your circle of friends and family… or that your friends and family have really loyal friends that will part with some money for your sake. Generally it’s easier to pull in these types if your video is clever/entertaining and you have a product that they deem to be worth the donation level.
4) Kickstarter junkies – These are the people that you see that have the subheading “John Doe is backing XX other projects,” and they’ll find you based on searches for keywords (like Steampunk), when your project falls into the category “Recently Launched,” “Ending Soon,” or simply people searching “Fiction.” The Dashboard will tell you how much you raised from Kickstarter clicks ($831 for The Wind Merchant/Greyscale), and external referrers like Facebook, E-mails, and Twitter ($3,415, or ~80%).
5) Bleeding Edge Buyers – If you have a product that is reasonably priced on the market or is a one-time opportunity, people like to have exclusive things or say that they’re a part of the first wave before anybody else has the product. This usually works best if it’s an ingenious tech idea, the creator already has a platform of people to market to, the price is less than what the item will be when released, or the niche caters to something they care about and want to see succeed.
There could be more, but I think most backers safely fall within at least one of these categories.
Lesson #2 – What you are selling will drastically effect when and where you will receive support.
If you’re not selling something or are pricing things at a premium from what the market expects, you’re probably mostly going to cater to categories #1 and #2 above. If your video is amazing you might get to #3 and #4, but pricing things more along the lines of what people expect will pull in #3-5 more handily.
For instance, I opted to support both segments. I made the book available for $5 digitally, so anyone that wanted to read had a very low hurdle (even on their computer via .pdf if they didn’t have an eReader), and even tossed in some music from Leave Me (although I thought the millions of people who have watched and enjoyed the film would pull in more than a single $1 contribution for the sake of getting the score of the short film), but I’d also like to think that the strength of the short and the plea in the video caused those people to contribute more than $1. I also priced a paperback at $25, signed (along with an audiobook which normally goes for more than a paperback). Yes, $25 is a lot for a paperback book, and the people that backed it were people that would be willing to help me out if I asked them directly (I assume), but it’s personalized and a popular reward level on Kickstarter, so I got a decent number.
Overwhelmingly the most popular level was $50. A hardback copy of the book with the donor’s name inside on the Thank You page… and it’s the only time I plan to ever print a run of hardbacks for my first book. A limited edition. Add that to all the other levels (replacing the paperback), and you’ve got something that might be worth something someday, isn’t available anywhere else, and won’t be available ever again… plus I tossed in my feature film as a thank you before it goes on the market, so I like to think that people were getting their money’s worth at this level.
The higher levels were people that either reeeeally wanted the artwork or had the money and wanted to push me further toward succeeding (all of the higher level donations of $100 or more happened before I met the goal).
Lesson #3 – Unless you are selling a product people really want, you’ll lose steam after meeting your goal.
I understand that I set out to raise $3,000. I also understand that people will look at a campaign, see if it’s funded, and then decide you don’t need their help because you’ve met the goal… and the only reason someone would contribute beyond you meeting your goal is A) they want to support you a little more, or B) you have that unique product they want.
I also understand that people gave to see Greyscale completed, not to read a book by an unpublished author. Greyscale was my platform, and the flattening of the line grew only slightly from people interested in Steampunk novels at a non-competitive price point, so I’m pretty sure I would have been in trouble if I had only banged the drum on the book and not brought the film into the equation (and probably would have even looked like I had given up on the film and moved onto book writing instead, which wouldn’t have sat well with everyone following me for the last 4 years… so I’m glad that wasn’t the case). If I were an established author with a base of readers, I might have been able to pull it off, but it would have been difficult to get anyone more than my friends and family to support me. The final uptick at the end was from asking for a few friends to post once more and showing up in the Kickstarter “Ending Soon” category, which adds a fun little amount of “this is your last shot to get something…” appeal.
Lesson #4 – Not everyone will pay.
A word of warning, some Kickstarter junkies back a ton of projects and then don’t come through when it comes to payment. I fortunately only had 1 backer at the $25 level not pay, but a quick reminder that you won’t always get the full amount you expect from your donors.
Lesson #5 – All Survey questions are mandatory.
I didn’t read the fine print when I sent out the survey for information and asked a couple questions such as how they found out about the campaign beyond the usual questions (what address, do you want the book signed, etc). I listed the questions as optional in the heading, but found out that all questions are mandatory. I feel bad for forcing people to answer those questions, but you the reader get to benefit a little from the data I collected.
Lesson #6 – You can change things until it’s over. It’s never too late to change your video or your updates. You can add new backer levels, but once someone has pledged at that level, you can’t change it. I thankfully read an update mentioning that you can change things on the main page until it’s over, so when you’re reaching the last day and you want people to be able to be directed to a homepage (like I bought www.TheWindMerchant.com), now people can google the phrase, find the old Kickstarter campaign since it has a higher search ranking currently, and then find the link to the main site easily. If I hadn’t added that, I wouldn’t have been able to point people to the site easily from the Kickstarter page.
Lesson #7 – Videos matter.
A good video alone will get me to donate to a project. But like with most YouTube video, I need to be hooked as soon as possible. Production values matter, especially if I don’t have any ties to the project creators or even know the people that are friends with the creators.
Lesson #8 – Don’t give up, but don’t wait for the (assumed) point of no return to fix things.
Having backed 26 projects (3 active, 16 successful, 7 unsuccessful), there comes a point where a potential backer will look at project and see how much time is left to meet the goal and do some fuzzy math to guess if their pledge would be just a nice gesture or if they might actually contribute toward the project’s success. My thoughts are to keep finding unique ways to make a project appealing if it’s plateaued before it gets to the assumed point of no return, by adding new backer levels, sweetening the pot somehow, or doing a new funny video and maybe posting it to Vimeo/YouTube with the link to the Kickstarter at the top of the details (because if people aren’t clicking on the Kickstarter link on Facebook after having seen it enough times, chances are they won’t click on the same link image again even if you’ve updated the info or video).
Finally, I’d like to make 3 points. 1) I think Kickstarter and crowdfunding is one of the many paths forward in cutting out the middleman and rewarding hardworking artists, but you have to either have a platform pre-built or a great idea that will spread in order to succeed. 2) I really don’t want to have to do a Kickstarter again for a long while unless I can offer a product for a reasonable market price. 3) I am incredibly grateful for everyone that participated in making The Wind Merchant & Greyscale‘s campaign a success, and I will not forget those people that took care of me when I needed the support.
I hope this helps you, and if anyone out there from Kickstarter is listening, I think a great feature would be to find what campaigns are being run by people on your Facebook friend list. That way they wouldn’t need to post continually and can proactively search out friend’s projects to help out if they’re so inclined.
When an actor or actress steps into the skin of a character for a while, they can become attached to that character. Barring reshoots & ADR, once they finish with their scenes, their character essentially dies. The actor may inadvertently dress like the character again if they supplied their own wardrobe, but the playing of the role has a finite lifespan.
With shooting schedules, actors come and go for the most efficient use of time on set. They weren’t there for pre-production, won’t be there for post-production, and are only there for a percentage of the time during production, so unlike a crew that’s there from beginning to end, they’re probably going to miss out on the last hurrah celebration of wrapping on the project unless they’re in the final scene.
Since I also count myself among the ranks of actors, I’ve been on both sides of this. Production can get crazy on set and you’re generally thinking of what you have to do next without giving much thought to milestones, so when I’ve forgotten to realize that the actor I just worked with doesn’t have another shoot date later in the schedule, the life of their character ends without much fanfare at all.
It’s a little thing, but it does mean the world to an actor to have it brought to attention that they are finished and leaving the film family. Your actors will feel appreciated (and we are a moody bunch, aren’t we?), you’ll have a little crew morale boost (even if it’s five seconds of everyone clapping, it’s a nice marker for the project’s progress). Plus most actors will hang around until they have been announced out as they wouldn’t want to leave accidentally assuming they were finished. So, beyond just a thank you and morale boost, it’s an actor’s cue to unclip their mic pack, go back to wardrobe, and get ready to step back into their own skin.
I had a very atypical sort of Kickstarter campaign. I tried to sell a book to fund a movie. My ultimate goal was to raise $1,500 to pay for a 5.1 surround sound mix for the film I’ve been working on for the last 4 years. I couldn’t do an outright “pre-sale” of the film the way some Kickstarters will do since I am wanting to pursue the traditional method of film distribution, as the point was hammered home that I have a limited reach with my personal networks (and their extended networks even).
1) People don’t buy what you do, they buy WHY you do it.
Thanks to Simon Sinek for teaching me this lesson, but I believe that if I had just gone out and said “I’m writing a steampunk novel!” I would have shot myself in the foot. I would have reached my close friends and family that shared the interest or just wanted to see me succeed in whatever creative endeavors I undertook… but not everyone is a reader, and certainly not everyone wants to read a book from a first time novelist unless they believe he can hammer home a good story based on his track record with storytelling in other mediums.
The motivation to use the Kickstarter campaign to finish Greyscale still would have been there, but if people didn’t know the WHY of the campaign, I don’t believe people would have been nearly as motivated to contribute. The book seems almost like an extra gift for giving money to help me out instead of the book being the motivator to give initially. Also, if I had kept silent about Greyscale to try to save face and seem like I was going to be able to finish the film all by myself, I wouldn’t have had a network of the 160+ people personally involved in the film, nor the networks built around the film that have grown over the last 4 years.
2) I believe some backers were more motivated to support me in my creative endeavors moreso than a movie or book.
Almost every backer level has its own type of people (with a few exceptions). I had hoped that I would have pulled in people at the $1 from Vimeo and YouTube by offering the Leave Me track, but nobody bit. I also expected more $5 hits from people that might be interested in just reading a book… but again, I don’t have an author track record and I also realized I spent most of the video I made telling the story of Greyscale, giving about :30 to the book… which hearkens back to focusing on lesson #1, but I wasn’t ‘selling just the book’ so I probably shouldn’t be surprised.
I also expected the $25 level to be the most popular level, but was pleasantly surprised that $50 overtook that handily and I believe it was partly because of a nicer backer reward and also because people felt that $50 was a nice amount to get a limited 1st edition hardback (and their name in the book) as well as a lot of other things from the earlier levels.
3) Once you reach your goal, the urgency is gone.
People will click over to a Kickstarter campaign, see if you’ve met your goal, and if you have, they might leave because they don’t think they can help further (unless you have outlined targets for where extra money would go or a really cool backer reward). When you’re setting your dollar amount, you’re essentially wagering how much you believe people will come together to help you, and when you’re setting the date, you’re gauging how long it’ll take for that to happen. Also, you might be in danger of coming off as greedy if you keep upping the ante and saying “I know you all were generous, but let’s try to get me even more!” without having a clearly defined structure to begin with.
I almost undersold myself and set the goal at $2,500 instead of $3,000, which would have taken care of the $1,500 for the 5.1 mix, but would have left me footing the bill for all of the book related costs. And even though I’m at 109% of the $3,000 mark, I’m still sitting about 95% having all of my costs covered for the book, but since the primary goal of the 5.1 mix was accomplished, I’m quite willing to pony up the last $100 or so myself in order to get the book published for everyone else if nobody else decides they want the book. Which leads me to…
4) Pay attention to margins.
The reason I’m not at 100% net currently is because the $50 option wound up being the most popular… and hardback dust-jacketed books cost 3 times as much to print and ship than it’s paperback brother... and I couldn’t ask $75 for a hardback book to keep the same net margin $… so I decided I would just take the margin hit and give away something cool at that level. I’m not complaining that people decided to give $50 over $25, it just means that my initial estimate of $3,000 was just a little bit low for the net margin %. So, figure out what you think will be the most popular target, and be sure to estimate properly with that in mind.
5) Be transparent.
Going back to #1, if you’re not selling a really cool gadget, people are more supporting the people behind the project, so making sure you’re on the level with everything goes a long way. Be honest, be real. I think with all the advertisements and slick ways people try to get you to part you with your money, people are maybe more interested in supporting the actual artists via Kickstarter than a faceless promo video of the project. But, every project is different, and you have to know up front what it is you’re actually selling.
6) I really dislike self-promotion. In the first project I helped craft, we reached the goal in 27 hours. I only had to send out the link once and the ripple effect of everyone else associated with the project posting made the project successful in a very short order. With The Wind Merchant/Greyscale, I had a larger financial goal, a larger number of people directly involved with the project, but many of those people hadn’t been directly involved with Greyscale for well over a year now.
I have decided that I love Kickstarter as a concept. I love seeing bleeding edge technology and supporting artists that need help getting their dream produced. I hate asking people for money. I hate posting repeatedly with status updates asking for money. But on the other hand, I also know that there have been several projects done by friends that I would have happily supported but never found out about their project because I just didn’t happen to make it to Facebook when they had posted. It’s a balancing act and you have to gauge when you’ve hit saturation in your circles and when you might start hacking off friends who have already given and might start growing tired of seeing nothing but your pleas for donations popping up in status updates.
7) Checking email becomes addictive, so moderate exposure and don’t let it determine your mood.
After the first two days, I had hit almost $2,500… and each time someone would donate, I would get an email letting me know. So, pulling out my phone for an update that someone out there has decided to support me felt pretty great… and on Day 1 with 24 backers and Day 2 with 18 backers felt pretty great with how frequently I got those emails. Then Day 3… 5 emails, but I was still checking with the frequency of Days 1 and 2. I started to get burned out and wondering why people “stopped caring.” Well, I had stopped posting the link, and a lot of the people who would have given to me if I had asked them had already given, so I was reaching my saturation point… but the emails were addictive. I guess the real lesson on this one was to not let my mood be influenced by the frequency of backers coming in, and just appreciate that people love and support me enough to see my dreams materialize.
Overall, it’s been a wild ride. A humbling, exciting, affirming ride that I hope I don’t have to take again, but am thankful that the path is there. With 18 days left to go, I don’t know where it’ll land or if it’ll pick up with Steampunk enthusiasts for the book (which would be nice, but I’m not fully anticipating that to happen). I’ll have to post something again after everything is said and done with my final thoughts on the matter, but I hope this has been helpful if you’ve been considering running your own campaign!