Economics of Indie

I’m being persuaded that I should cut out or rewrite a couple of scenes in my screenplay.  On the one hand, I think the way I’ve written it is more visually interesting and tells the story better.  On the other hand, it will be logistically complicated and relatively expensive to film. My original intent was for the students to learn about the potential for buried treasure during a lecture in school.  That means finding a lecture hall I can use, hiring an actor to be the teacher and getting a dozen or more extras to give the illusion that the lecture hall is full of students.

On the other hand, if I reconceive the scene such that the students (and audience) get the same information from, say, going over the lecture notes in advance of class, then I can not only cut the expenses and challenges of filming it a lecture hall, but I can film it in the same locations I’m using for the other student interactions, which could significantly reduce setup time, shortening the length of time I would be filming, further reducing costs.

I’ve been thinking about the added value of the lecture scene.  If I didn’t have budget constraints, I feel sure the story would flow better with it in. However, budget is the absolute driver for this project, so my consideration becomes, is the incremental benefit to the story so high that it’s worth finding the funding (and location and extras) knowing that the cost has to come out of the rest of the project somehow.

Though I’ve been giving some serious thought to increasing the size of my budget, so I can pay my cast and crew (I’m not having much luck so far finding people to work for reel, beer and pizza), doing so adds a lot of complexity to the project.  I’ve been debating the value of the added complexity to my goal of learning if I want to be a director. If I can pay even a moderate amount (it seems that even $100 a day (generally 10 hours) is considered at the higher high end for low budget projects), I’ve been told I can attract a very different caliber of cast and crew.  Ones that have professional experience. And that are much more likely to show up for the entire production period.

I would very much like to be the only ‘virgin’ on the shoot, so the prospects of investing the time and energy to get a larger enough budget to pay cast and crew appeals very much to me.  If we’re all learning at the same time, there aren’t any experienced eyes watching to keep me from making naive mistakes.

The other direction I’ve been looking is toward shrinking the shooting days.  I’ve been using an estimate of 5 minutes of finished film (pages of script) each day.  With a goal of 80 pages/minutes, that translates to 16 days, or 8 weekends. I’ve been told, and have read, that projects which work to minimize the number of locations and sets can dramatically increase the number of pages shot each day, so much so that 10 minutes/pages appears feasible.  That cuts it down to 4 weekends, which could cut the required funds in half.

This feeds back into my decision making process regarding the lecture scene (actually, there are two in my first draft, though I’ve decided I’m OK with cutting the second entirely), since I get so much savings.

So it seems, whether I increase the budget or not, it makes a great deal of sense to replace my lecture hall scene with something much cheaper to film.  With that decision made, I now have to decide how else to convey the same information. Which I’ve been struggling with for a number of days (and one reason why this blog post is actually being made on Sunday, instead of later on in the week; I’m grasping for distractions).

Part of my goal with the screenplay was to put in some Civil War history specific to the Shenandoah Valley.  I contacted a subject matter expert and got all sorts of excellent information from her. I’ve only used a very tiny fraction of what she provided, but it was the fraction I felt was important to understanding the reasons why there might be treasure for my characters to find.  A teacher giving a lecture felt like a very natural and organic to get the information across. Now I have to find something less natural and less organic, or find a way to tell the story without the information at all.

Stripped of any extraneous staging information, the verbiage in the first draft is 345 words.  About two and a half pages worth of information in a formatted screenplay, or that many minutes.  I felt that long worked as the lecture, but I’m not sure if conveying it in other ways will work that long, unless I can create something visually interesting for the viewer as they get the information dump.  Then the problem becomes, if I create something too visually compelling for the viewer, then they focus on that instead of the information.

I have an idea I’m going to try.  I’m not sold on it, but I’ll ask my advisors what they think.  Maybe it can be made to work, and I can achieve the cost savings without compromising my story.

It’s interesting to me, how my learning process impacts my movie watching experience.  I was rewatching “Out of Sight” yesterday and kept thinking to myself, why did the writer choose to write this scene, then the director film it and finally the editor include it.  A number of them felt like they could be extraneous to the story, yet they wound up in the final cut. “Out of Sight” is one of my favorite movies, so I certainly don’t think the ‘extraneous’ scenes hurt the movie at all, but as I sit and agonize over my decisions, I wonder if I cut too much of my original intent I wind up cutting parts of what I felt made the story compelling in the first place.

Author: mitusents

Biochemist, MBA, then programmer. Now novelist, screenplay writer and hopefully director. What a strange trip it's been.