What I Got Out of my SXSW Film Festival Experience

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These are mostly notes to myself regarding how or if to proceed with my Chupacabra movie after attending the SXSW Film festival. I thought for anyone interested in trying to make a movie also, but couldn't go to the festival themselves, I'd share the experience of my good fortune.

These aren't facts, but merely my own impressions and what I took from it. Figured I'd jot them down while they're still somewhat fresh after the fog of the partying that ensued throughout the entire film, interactive and music festivals. 

I hit it hard like a first semester college kid, and all I can say is... although it was fun and I can definitely see the attraction some have to going to monster festivals like this, I'm very glad I'm no longer partying at the intensity of a first semester college kid. ;)

Here's what I got out of the film festival portion: 

1. No one is going to read your script. Friends and family might skim it and give a thumbs up, but unless the readers write screenplays, make films, or are paid to read screenplays and know what to look for, the feedback may not be that useful. 

Producers, no matter how intrigued they are by your story, aren't going to bother reading your screenplay either. They will read a one-page synopsis and if it sounds like something that might make money, they might read a 3-page treatment. They won't even entertain reading your script until it's nearly a done deal and even then, they're only skimming to see what props, locations, music etc. that might drive up production cost. 

2. Distributers don't really pay that much attention to films in festivals. They don't even care if your film gets a lot of buzz and/or wins a prize because they don't feel the audiences of film festivals represent the general public and potential profitability. If your film gets a lot of buzz, that only means you were likely good at generating buzz, not necessarily an indication that you've made a good film that might make money.

They typically buy films from the biggest film festivals like Cannes and Sundance. Other than that, the festival circuit is pretty much only good for networking with other film makers. This is valuable experience, but does little to get your film picked up for general release.

3. Out of the hundreds of thousands of screenplays that are written every year, only a few thousand get made. And of those, even fewer were purchased "spec" scripts. Most are written and directed by. And of those, even fewer get picked up for release. 

If you want to write and sell a screenplay, the odds are really stacked against you. Odds are slightly better if you have the skill to make the film yourself or partner with someone who can. 

Provided you've got a story to tell that's compelling to others, and you have any storytelling skill, your best bet is to simply start making movies with whatever you've got. Even if its shot on an iPhone or the family video camcorder, etc. Put it on YouTube and spread the word. If its good, and it shows you have real talent, it will catch on and Hollywood will eventually find you. 

Many (including myself) get way too bogged down with having to have a high level of video gear. There are many cinematic gear-heads who only see mostly bits, codecs, compression, sensor size, quality of glass, jib contraptions, etc. From what I can tell, although I can certainly appreciate a finely crafted bit of cinematic art, none of that matters to a hill of beans if the story isn't good or the acting is bad. You can make a film that looks enough like a "real movie" to be convincing to the average viewer with a very minimum of gear and a little creativity. 

In short, a great story told visually with an iPhone, some decent actors, and a level of production that at least isn't distractingly bad… will absolutely trounce a poor story, with bad acting shot with state-of-the-art production equipment any day of the week.

4. I got mixed reports on whether its better to start with a short film. Some have made short films, posted on YouTube, and ended up getting deals to shoot feature films based on their original short alone. Your odds are better if your short can be easily expanded out to feature length or adapted into a TV show. 

Many said making good shorts is actually harder than a feature, though I can't imagine why. Seems like it would be easier to get the help you need for the shorter period of time it'd take to make a short film. And, because good actors are vital... you might not be able to afford to pay them for the time it would take to make a feature, but they may be willing to help you out for a couple days on a short film if they like the story.

Some said after you've got the story nailed down, access to help, locations and gear... you might as well go for it and make a feature since you've already got most everything in place. And, you might even get lucky with a feature that gets picked up for distribution. That's a lot less likely to happen with a short.

5. Nobody has a clue what will be successful. From the top to the bottom, its always a gamble with regard to what will resonate with the general public. The most seasoned professionals with the best track records are just as clueless. They look at all the data on whats popular now, whats been popular, and what they guess will be popular by the time the film is made and ready for release... then they roll the dice and hope for the best.

6. Screenplay perfection is a waste of time. It's just a rough guide and most of it will likely get changed while you are shooting anyway. And, since no one who you hope to get financing from is actually going to read your script, its better to spend your time nailing a great one-sheet and/or three-page synopsis. 

7. Screenplays are a real chore to read. There are some free screenwriter communities out there like Trigger-street and Zoetrope, etc. that you can get your script read by peers after you read and review their scripts. At Zoetrope, you have to read and review 4 scripts before yours gets reviewed. This isn't fun especially if the scripts are a formatting mess, aren't that interesting to you, or don't appeal to your own taste.

That doesn't mean the script you didn't connect with wouldn't make a great movie. Just means it hasn't found it's audience. A script about a gang of hooligans who head out terrorizing suburbia on riding lawnmowers shot with a Pixelvision camera might not be your cup of tea, but if there's a big enough audience who wants to see that, it's a success. 

I've read several scripts now and have offered my reviews, but to be honest… unless I really liked the story, my feedback was likely useless for the writer. Those reviewing the screenplays on these sites are only doing it because they want to get their own script reviewed, thus the feedback might not be all that useful. Although, it is good to read scripts to see what works and what doesn't I suppose. Or, at least see why some scripts with good stories are so difficult to read so that you can fix the same problems you might have in your own screenplay.

The process of honing a script to hopefully sell is a bit futile for a script you want to make yourself,  but it may be very useful if for no other reason than to make sure you get to the point with your story and make the reading process as easy as possible. Again, if you're going to make the movie yourself and you are just hoping to give someone an idea what it's about to someone who might fund your project, your time is better spent honing a one-page and/or three-page synopsis.

There's a very respected online industry site called The Black List that will host your script for $25 a month and make it available for review to Hollywood types. You can pay an extra $50 to have your script read by a professional script reader and scored 1-10. However, if that script reader is having a bad day, or just does't dig your story and scores your script with less than an 8 out of 10, your script will not make the newsletter and has been effectively killed dead in it's tracks on that site by just one person.

Because there is so much content constantly being generated, the gatekeepers won't bother wasting time with anything other than the highest rated scripts in the newsletter. There's just too much stuff out there and if you don't get lucky with a high score on your first professional review, it's a waste of money to keep your script on this site. Also, there have not been any verified success stories made public. 

There's likely some potential at the Black List, but it's a gamble too. Let's say you pay for a script review and get a high rating. Then get a couple more high ratings and your average is an 8 out of 10. Then one person reads your script and thinks it's horrible, giving it a 2. Your script that was showing so much promise to get read by gatekeepers, has now been dropped to around a 6 rating and will be ignored. This site is worth watching though. If anyone figures out the best way to do it, it's going to be these folks. I got to chat one-on-one with the founder (Franklin) of the site/service, and he was very generous with his time and very forthcoming about what the site is and what it is not. He made no promises, but I felt his site might eventually be a good way to get quality material in front of the right eyes.

8. After you manage to pull together all the help you need, find the money, and eventually have a finished film, then comes the most difficult hoop to jump through of all... distribution. Getting the right people to see your film is a huge hurdle. Film festivals are expensive to participate in, and thats provided that you even get accepted in the first place. And, the sheer volume of films they generally allow into festivals makes it even more difficult to get anyone to see your film. Knowing that many of the buyers don't even pay that much attention to festivals is also discouraging. 

On the bright side, there are so many other new methods to self-distribute your movie online and by renting local theaters who can project your film digitally, that finding an audience is certainly doable if you've got a good story that's well executed. 

There's also a new service through Vimeo where you can offer your own movie for sale via video-on-demand similar to the way many view movies via iTunes, Hulu, and Netflix. This is brand new and means that there is essentially no gatekeeper to you getting your film out there and available via pay-per-view. Vimeo also lets the author keep 90% and they keep 10% after payment processing fees.

I also learned about something brand new called the "JOBS Act" where contributors can actually own a piece of equity in your film, but I didn't get any other details out that. Sounds very promising though.

9. Importance of your film's log line and to a less extent, it's title: Festival attendees are typically getting information overload. They aren't likely reading up on all the films showing. They are getting so many shiny postcards handed out on the street by all the film makers. These get barely more than a glance and then straight to the garbage or stuffed into bag or pocket with a couple dozen more or them. There are also tons of emails & blog posts about all the films you should see, etc. Add to all that, they're also trying to network in a fog of non-stop happy hours and parties. 

When they finally get to the decision making process of which films to see, they're skimming the log lines for the films that sound the most interesting. They'll also lean more toward documentaries because they figure a bad narrative film is just a waste of time... while with a bad doc might at least teach something you didn't know before.

So here's where I'm at... I'm confident I have a compelling story that I can consistently keep a varied audience's attention for the length of a feature-length film and that they'll feel rewarded by the end. What I don't know is if my written screenplay version of the story is compelling enough to secure funding or make a great movie that will generate that same feeling of satisfaction that the oral version does.

I'm confident that my visual skills would direct a film that would be a pleasure for a wide audience to view. But a film that only looks good and doesn't have a compelling story is still just a good-looking failure.

Finding a small group of talented people who already own great film making gear, and who would be thrilled to go on an adventure in Mexico shooting a guerilla-style feature film in Guanajuato, Mexico and in the peyote-rich desert of San Luis Potosí would not be that difficult. A talented crew could likely be found to work for no more than the cost of covering their travel expenses. This would get me partners with plenty of heart and desire to co-create, but wouldn't get me seasoned professionals with experience. "Pros" would have to be paid and would not likely be willing to make due with low-end gear. I can accept a creative crew with heart easily if I can't secure funds for professionals.

Getting at least 2 VERY talented actors who are still unknown enough and willing to be in an independent film for nothing more than their expenses paid, would be the real trick. 

I'm confident I could find the bare-bones funding via limited partners and crowd-funding, ie. Kickstarter or Indiegogo. I'm confident I could find the talent who would value the experience enough to be involved for no other compensation than their expenses covered, especially here in Austin, Texas. I'm confident my locations would offer a very high level of production value to the look of the film and that my visual direction would ensure that. I'm confident my story is good enough to enthrall a large enough audience for the length of a standard feature film. 

What I don't know if if the story I've written will be as successful holding attention for an hour and a half of screen time as my oral version has been proven to do.

Much to consider and digest. But right now, all I want to do is go shopping for new motorcycles and dream of the open road. ;)