This post is devoted to providing background to how I got to the point where I created a crowdfunding page for my first movie. It’s intended for the friends and family I haven’t contacted in a while (in some cases a very long while; sorry about that) to give them an idea of how I got from hither to yon.
With my failure of various inventions, business ideas, etc., I struggled for a long while to find something to get passionate about. I thought to give writing a try, which is what lead to this website.
Then, when a beta reader ‘complained’ that my first novel read like a screenplay, I decided to learn about movie making. I’ve always been intensely interested in movies. For decades, one of my best friends and I would get together to watch movies and then discuss them. I love to watch the behind-the-scenes stuff and had read with some interests about the arcane rules of Hollywood accounting. But I hadn’t learned anything about the nitty-gritty elements of movie making.
The more I learned about directing, the more I felt called toward the subject. The same was not true for any other element of movie making, though much of what I learned about producing meshed very well with my broad business education (self-taught as well as formal with an MBA). When I wrote my stories, I was basically describing a movie I had in my head, so the more I learned, the more I thought I could be happy as a writer/director.
But, after having learned about the dismal prospects of making a living as a writer, did I really want to dump more time, energy and money into another low probability project? I mulled over this for a long time. Though based largely on gut feelings, honed over decades of entrepreneurship (but mostly guesswork), I felt that the chances of making it as a successful novelist (somewhat arbitrarily designated as making $100K+ per year doing full-time writing) was one in 10,000. I did note, as I did my research, that almost all the millionaire authors (very few, actually) were such because their novels were turned into movies. Perhaps I could cut out the middle man and make my own?
After some deep analysis of the prospects of making a living as a writer/director, I came up with the gut conviction that the odds of success (basically, the same $100K/year income) was around one in 500. Still quite abysmal odds, of course, but 20 times better than as a novelist. Still, did it make sense to devote so much effort to something with such terrible chances of success?
When it comes to being a novelist, my education and experience really bring zero as any sort of competitive advantage. Meaning, nothing distinguishes me as a novelist, when compared to the 10’s of thousands (perhaps 100x more, who knows) of other novelists out there. However, directing isn’t quite the same. Directors are managers, in addition to being the creative driving force. As I researched directing, I felt more and more that my expensive business education and years of experience as a manger would give me a competitive advantage over other directors.
More than that, movies are about packages. No matter how great a script is, without the money to make it, nothing will come of it. Producers are the prime movers behind getting the money, and while I didn’t feel called to producing like I did to directing, I certainly know their motivation and can speak their language. And I’m comfortable acting as a producer and tracking the 1,001 things that all must come together in order to take a script to the big screen. As a writer, in addition to director, I’ve already increased the package when approaching any investors. If I can get myself plugged in enough to find the right actors, then I have a huge head start over other directors, even experienced ones.
There is a massive Catch-22 to being a director, though. In nearly all cases, no director is ever hired to be a director without having first been a director. WTF? Well, this conundrum is usually ‘simply’ resolved by producing (and paying for) your first project. So I decided to research how cheaply I could make a movie.
In principle, you can make a movie for zero dollars. That only works in very rare cases, and I wanted something people could watch. After much research, I felt a few thousand dollar budget would let me have the potential to make something people could enjoy. That depended, though, on getting cast and crew to work for ‘reel, beer and pizza.’ ‘Reel’ is examples of your talent. In the case of a cinematographer, what their imagery looks like, lighting, angles, etc. For an actor, how they comport themselves, emote, etc. Everyone starting out has the same Catch-22, can’t get any experience without first having some experience, so, based on much of what I read, I felt I could get my start that way.
Not so much luck, though, in finding people for that level of compensation. I got lucky during this research process in finding a mentor who has made several shorts and a feature. He insisted it was possible to do things for reel, but if I could pay, even a little, I’d have a much better selection of actors, and it’d be much more likely they’d stay the course to get the movie completed. I recalculated and figured a larger, but still small, budget, and started a campaign to get that funded. That meant going to my boss and executive producer (wife) to get the funding allocated. Well, she wasn’t very interested. Over the years, she’d put in at least $50K in my various business ideas, inventions, etc. and had yet to see a cent in return. Plus, after having just dumped a bunch of money into novels, she was skeptical I would have more to show for my movie making efforts.
Intellectually, I agreed with her assessment. We were taking money that would otherwise go toward our retirement, so there were very real and fairly immediate consequences to diverting that to something with such a low probability of success. However, after much navel gazing, I decided the only thing I could get passionate about any longer was the idea of making movies. After much whining, pleading, puppy dog eyes and perhaps some sniveling and blubbering, I convinced the boss to back me in finding out if I have the potential to make a go as a writer/director.
But what to write and direct? The first screenplay I completed, “The Dominatrix Wore Red,” while overall inexpensive to film, when compared to Hollywood blockbusters, was still way out of reach of the paltry sums I could rationalize extracting from our retirement. The first one I worked on, but didn’t complete until later, had too much international travel for a first-time, micro budget feature. I asked a friend for ideas. Since she’s obsessed with the Civil War, she naturally suggested that as something to explore. I thought the idea of an adventure in treasure hunting that all happened on our own property could be just the thing. I set to writing, got the input from a couple of editors, and started the casting process. With my expanded budget to pay cast and crew, I’m happy to report I got lots of very good quality applicants, and was off to the races.
So there you go, the background to my request for crowdfunding a feature from a first-time writer/director. My goals for this project are fairly simple: do I enjoy making it and is what I wind up with watchable (broadly defined is will people who see it willingly recommend it to a friend)? If I don’t like making movies (I have, so far), then that’s the end of that. If what I write/direct/produce isn’t watchable, then I seriously need to reconsider my efforts. That said, movie making is, first and foremost, a collaborative endeavor. Lots of people have integral parts to play. On the one hand, it can dilute some of the aims of the writer in the initial script. But on the other hand, with cast and crew that really care, they can make it better than it was on the page. My goal with paying for the experienced cast and crew was to help ensure against my naive mistakes causing the end product to be worthless. Time will tell on this, but I’m optimistic.
So what happens if I like making movies and what I turn out is watchable? Well I have a number of projects in the pipeline for just such an event. I think my second project might be a horror movie, as horror seems to be the only genre where a low budget independent movie has a realistic chance at distribution, hence profit. I’m toying with a third project as a Civil War biopic on Jessie Rupert, the Angel of the Shenandoah. Even though a period piece, I believe it’s feasible to film it ‘inexpensively’ (my arm-waving budget is $500K, so everything is relative) by taking advantage of lots of interest in the Shenandoah Valley. I think I can make this profitable through self-distribution, so don’t think I need to rely on outsiders to pay back my investors.
A fourth project is one I came up with a year or so ago. I’m big into road bicycle racing (think the Tour de France) and would love to tell the story of the domestique, those riders who support the team and its leader. While I expect I’ll need a couple of million dollars to adequately tell that story, because of the global following of bike racing I think I can self-distribute it and get that budget back.
Then my Dominatrix movies. They’re ‘cheap’ by most standards, with a small cast, few locations and no travel. But most movies need to have at least one ‘name’ actor in order to have any realistic chance at distribution, hence profit (self-distribution is extremely time consuming and requires a substantial investment of money as well), and to do that it’s fairly commonly accepted that budgets need to be at least $2.5 million. But if I can get this far, I should have enough of a reputation to get a realistic chance of getting these movies widely distributed.
If I’m still having success, I have other concepts I think would work very nicely on the big screen. They’re much more expensive to film, requiring stunts, sets, guns, etc., but I think the stories are interesting enough to put butts in theaters.
A very long shot indeed. Not quite lottery-like odds, which I equate to the chance of being struck by lightening, while dancing naked, on a golf course, at midnight, but slim nonetheless. However, gotta play to win, and as someone once said, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. I’m taking this shot at movie making, and, if you’ve read this far, perhaps you’ll consider donating to the cause.
After all, someone has to get struck by lightening. Why not me?