From Inception To Screen

The journey of making an ultra-low budget

independent feature film - 2011


Back in the summer of 2010, I was in discussion with a number of people in Washington State who expressed a sincere interest in being involved and contributing to the making of a feature film in the area of the Olympic Mountains two hours west of Seattle. This is the same area as the setting of the “Twilight” books.

I had already written a short synopsis of a potential feature a year or so earlier, entitled “Serenity Farm” set in this area. The story was a thriller/ horror genre utilizing the majestic locations of the local mountains and forests.  Plus it incorporated the scary, never before filmed for a feature, miles of scary concrete tunnels and bunkers of an old fort with gun batteries built into the sea cliffs protecting the Puget Sound.

The following are some of the areas that I wish to pass on to filmmakers that I hope will interest readers and provide insight as to the process I went through from the summer of 2010 till July 2011, which is the time this book went to publish. As you will see at the time of this book being published we had just finished shooting and were beginning editing… For ease of explanation, I have clearly sectioned my many comments and views to help you gain a true insight into the “screen to inception” process of making an ultra-low budget film in 2010 from my own perspective.

Opening Comment:  In filmmaking 101 it is generally stated that if you wish to make a really low, low budget independent feature film that is easy to produce, cheap and can be commercially successful, take a number of good looking teens, put them in a house and slaughter them in interesting ways!  Why is that a good idea for a first time filmmaker?  The horror genre sells all over the world; target market is young people who love this kind of genre; can shoot in one location, save costs/time; no need for any named actors so use cheap good looking talent; shooting it in a dark scary way helps in the lack of technical ability the filmmaker has, etc.  So “Serenity Farm” meets some of those elements, but as you will see, things become much more involved.  I have executive produced many films and have been very involved in production on many.  But this film proved to be extremely challenging.  In fact, I utilized a phrase “3 dimensional chess” for the unique difficulties I encountered trying to produce and shoot this movie!

Story/Genre:  Initially, I directed the tone of the story to be more horror less thriller.  Later in the development process and with discussion with my TV distribution friends and the director, the script was adjusted to bring in more thriller aspects but still maintain a strong scary, terror aspect.  I wanted to ensure my TV version of the film was more thriller as I know that TV revenue, especially in foreign, could be significant compared to DVD.  So, bottom line, to accentuate the commercial potential of TV, more thriller was incorporated into the script.

Marketing/Commerciality:  It was important that the story and how I envisioned the film, was to be commercially acceptable to the distribution buyers, especially in foreign, as I was anticipating the majority of the revenue to come from foreign TV and DVD.  I, therefore, went to the AFM in November 2010 to discuss the film with my foreign distribution friends (sold many films to them over many years when I was a sales agent).  In general they were very responsive to the project and that made me feel comfortable that if I produced a decent film based on my story that they would buy it.

It is a necessity to produce a quality website that includes a promo trailer, artwork, great graphics, story information, location information, bios, etc. and use this not only for potential distribution but also to attract investors and also to help you attract talent and crew.

Script:  I was not going to move forward with producing this film unless I had a good script that was reflective of my synopsis.  I decided to give the story to three screenwriters and see what they would come up with.  Each writer I collaborated with over a three month period and was so happy to see one of the scripts was indeed very good.

Collaboration:  It was important to the success of the shoot that the “set” was a happy set, as many people were working for back-end compensation and some were donating considerable time and keeping a ‘normal’ job going.  The whole shoot was indeed a fun place and that helped with long days during filming.  It was also important that the cast and the crew were from many different backgrounds and locations.  This included students from Washington State universities and also local school districts.  The combination of local people, local businesses, Seattle people, LA cast and crew, school kids, students, Florida cast, pro’s and amateur’s, local and out of state, young and old, etc. was indeed a organizational headache – but, benefitted the film greatly.

It was of great benefit to be associated with the local school district and to assist that district in providing a student class to study the filmmaking process on set.  This collaboration also allowed us access to the non-profit status that helped save on costs and opened doors of mutual benefit.

Financing:   Once I had a good script, I had to think about funding this film.  I reviewed in detail all the many ways of funding films (see my section on film financing) and decided that I wanted to maintain full control and decided that a film like this can be made with a small amount of cash.  If people would join me in making a film that no upfront fees were paid, they would share in the revenue once all my hard cash investment was paid back.  On that principal I felt I could fund the cash and see how my business model would sit with crew, cast, etc.  If it did, then we would have a movie that would go into production.

I presented to all concerned the formula below, for back-end/future payment that was based on a % of adjusted gross of the film’s sales.  Everyone who works on the film gets an agreed % of the adjusted gross which would come into play once I got back my investment.

  • Adjusted Gross - defined as gross receipts less costs and expenses.
  • Gross Receipts - defined as all monies, revenue and income actually received from the exploitation of the Picture from all sources worldwide.
  • Costs and Expenses - defined as any and all direct or indirect out of pocket costs and expenses incurred by producer in connection with and without limitation, all costs incurred in the exploitation, development,  pre-production, production , post-production,  marketing, publicity, advertising, promotion and distribution and selling of the Picture.

In virtually all cases this was acceptable to crew, cast, etc. This allowed me to attempt to fund this film myself and at the same time hold down costs to a minimum.  Limiting costs to a bare minimum (no fees for cast or crew and reduce other costs to minimum also) is the essence of this film financing model as this will allow the adjusted gross formula to yield fees from a small number of sales.

Distribution:  The one important element in all this film producing process was the fact that I had many years of selling films, both in the USA and around the world; therefore, I could guarantee distribution, especially in the foreign market, where I knew this film could do very well – if made correctly.   This fact proved to be very important in attracting people to this project as they could see that there was indeed a good chance that this film would be sold around the world and that fees could be paid on the back-end per the business model outlined.

Note: The vast majority of low budget independent films that are made never get distribution, never see the light of day, never recoup their investment and deferrals are never paid.

Director/DP:  It was very important to attract a quality director with the right personality type and with enough experience to be an integral part of this project.  Luckily, I have worked in the film industry for many years and I knew someone who could fit that description.  I meet him at the AFM and presented my film model and he agreed to do it.  As always in the film business it is who you know and this relationship proved invaluable.

Cast:  It is important to get professional actors.  They may be in SAG or SAG eligible or with good non-union experience.  I have usually hired LA actors in the past and this I did for two on the important roles; but, I branched out to Florida and I wanted Seattle based actors also. I also found three actors in the local community who really contributed greatly to the project.  All agreed to the business formula.  With actors from all over the USA it became an issue on flights and time schedule.  Flights became a major cost.  Needing to become a SAG ultra-low budget signatory, I found the complexities for such a small film as this were significant.  Also, having an effective website that visually explained the film and provided cast and crew with a positive impression of the project was very important.

Crew:  Obviously, quality crew became an issue as I was two hours away from Seattle.  Once again I turned to my professional friends in LA to provide the director and DP.  Having both a limited number of pro actors and pro director/DP made the world of difference to the quality of this film, but the costs of travel and hotels sent the costs up.  I utilized film students in a major way.  They were so very helpful and hardworking and they learned a lot from the pro’s too – mutually beneficial.  One thing I was missing in the first days of shoot was a 1st AD.  We found him later in the shoot and that really helped.  I utilized a number of local people for crew positions.  What they did not know about the film job they made up for in tremendous effort and will.

Shoot:  I decided not to shoot the film in one continuous set of days but instead break it up. In fact, we broke the shooting into four main segments.  This increased the travel costs.   The total shoot was 24 days, split into four main shooting periods (May7-9; June 11-14; June25 – July3; July13-19 and two days in LA).  Our main shoot period was a nine day, 16 hours a day shoot, covering three locations with one hour travel apart.  Having breaks in shooting was very important, especially as I was using crew that had other jobs and they were volunteering time to do the film.  Without that they would not have been able to help on the film.  This was also beneficial as it allowed us to see the good and the bad of what we were doing and make adjustments, especially on how the crew was doing their jobs and of course how the film clips looked.

From a logistical perspective we had over 5ooo video clips.  These clips ranged in length from 8 seconds to 8 minutes, with an average probably around 60-75 seconds each, from our multiple cameras.  This produces about 95 hours of footage.  This does not include the GoPro footage or the behind the scenes footage, which will add another 15-20 hours of material.  Good luck to our editor!

Locations:  The film locations were two hours west of Seattle so getting people there was a challenge.  We basically used four locations, namely the farm, a small town and the two bunker/ tunnel forts.  Locations were one hour drive from each other.  Getting permits for state parks proved challenging indeed.  The cost of locations proved to be minimal, which is very different from LA.  Local people were so helpful.

Time of year:  The film could be set any time of year but due to our schedule we shot in May/June/July 2011.  However, we did some shooting in winter to help with rain/storms.  From a cost perspective (flight/hotels), since it was summer and this area is a tourist haven, those costs rose.  On the plus side, the weather made it pleasant for shooting.

Accommodations:  To help keep costs down a number of the crew and other local people generously provided accommodations to crew and actors during the shoot.  This was a major cost saving as we had a large number from outside the area that needed to be put up.

Equipment:  We used the Sony EX1 HD camera – often using three or four of them – a quality work horse of a camera.  Our director owned one so it was an easy decision to go that way.  All my films in the past have been on 35mm so shooting on digital HD was interesting.  I still needed to ensure the quality was there, as I always respect the need for quality when selling films to foreign TV stations.  Renting cameras and lights can cost serious money but great people helped so much by lending use their equipment… A big thank you to them!

Filmmakers make a big note – foreign TV stations require a high level of technical quality on feature films.

Website/Internet:  Naturally we produced an official website (www.serenityfarmthemovie.com).  We also generated information and engagement via my website and via Facebook.  I also realized that the film sales were not going to come via internet traffic, in whatever form, but from my expertise in film sales agency.  One thing I tried was crowd funding.  I set up a project on “kickstarter.com” to see how the whole process worked.  I quickly realized that to be successful a great deal of time is required to attract donations from individuals.  I did not have that time but it is certainly a new and exciting funding potential avenue.

Note:  A point of interest to filmmakers is the way I used a promo of the upcoming film production.  To help me market the film to potential distributors I shot a short promo of the locations and have a voice over telling the story.  I used local actors and went to the three locations and shot a short promo of the story.  Besides using this promo to create a visual impression of the story to distributors I also used it to help build up the website into a marketing tool that I used to entice and attract actors, crew and director, etc.  This proved to be highly effective and, along with my explaining how I was to produce this film and the financing aspects, I was able to put this film together.

Post-Production:  We are about to finish the production phase of the film and move into editing.  Having a detailed work flow and logging of clips is vital.  Also ensure you have all material backed up and stored off site from your editor.  Our editor works in the following manner:

1) Bins for each scene.
2) Within scenes there are folders for wide shoots, close- ups, medium.
3) Bins for each b-roll within each scene.
4) Separate bins for things such as weather, tunnel, animals, rivers, oceans, creatures, skyline.

Editing is a long process and requires detail.  Both the director and myself will be heavily involved.  Music will come soon and again this part is so vital to the success of the film.  Based on how things are going this film should be completed by the end of 2011.

Summary:  This whole film comes down to balancing the need for quality (both in cast and crew) compared to paying out hard cash up front.  My vision was and still is to produce a quality product for such a small amount of cash up front, that when I sell two or three territories I will recoup my investment.  Then all film members (crew and cast) will share in the revenues.  This business model seems to make sense to me in these times.  In addition, I control the film 100% because I know (hopefully I know!) what sells and how to sell it, especially to foreign territories, where the majority of the film revenue will come.

To all the cast and crew of “Serenity Farm” …

“Say no more” and “Bob’s your uncle”

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