Everyone wants to be in the movies, either in front of or behind the camera. It’s a rough road to the silver screen, and only a few, strongly committed to their art, will get there. Yet for filmmakers, the routes have opened up as streaming and Video on Demand services offer new venues – and financing – for production. Improved digital cameras and non-linear editing software has democratized filmmaking so that anyone with a great idea, patience and talent can get their work seen. Even screenwriters living outside L.A. have new ways of getting their work in front of producers with online pitch meetings and other services.
The catch of course is you still have to do good work, make the right connections and get the right deal. An entertainment lawyer can help with the latter; the former is all on you.
1. The Script
Budding Tarantinos will want to take on all the jobs in the process, the first of which is the script. You can do it yourself – a true independent may want to – or you can find a talent in your circle of friends who has faith you can realize their story on screen.
If you’re a filmmaker and you do chose to work with a writer, you’ll have to work out some legal issues that will be important throughout the process of making your movie. You should ask an attorney about the arrangement you have with the writer. You may use the screenplay as a “work made for hire,” where the writer retains copyright, or you may want the writer to assign all rights to you or your production company. This is important because if your writer has a “work made for hire” arrangement with you, the writer can jet if the project goes bad, taking their script with them. You’ll have to start from scratch. If you have them assign their rights, their work product belongs to you or to the production company.
Most filmmakers already have that very personal story they are aching to get to work on. If you aren’t one of those and you’re lacking in ideas, you can check websites that track what scripts are selling and what movies are going into production. You may risk being late to the party as what is selling this year will be yesterday’s news in 12 months.
2. Obtaining the Rights to a Story or Script
If you do want to use someone else’s idea or story for your film or script, you may have to get an attorney’s help to secure the rights to that story, whether it is a news article, a novel, a non-fiction book or something someone told you about.
If you work with a production company and you write your own script, you will need a contract that addresses your rights to the script. The company may want you to assign your rights as you might if working with a writer. If you are already working with a writer and/or working from another work like a novel, the assigning of rights becomes more complex.
Hollywood scripts focus on structure and beats. Producers like to see a three-act structure full of emotional highs and lows, with easily identifiable character arcs for the major characters. Filmmakers have more room to experiment; however, screenwriters will need to pay close attention to the basics as these things get you in the door.
3. Getting Seen and Heard
There are several ways currently of getting your script read. Most “how to” books will advise you on the art of submitting a “spec” script to agents, managers, entertainment lawyers and producers. While it is rare these days for an unsolicited spec to climb the ladder towards production, sending a script out to a number of people or places is one way to move your script to screen. Before sending it off, just make sure your target accepts unsolicited work and has a policy in place for submissions. The spec is mainly a way to show agents you can write. Filmmakers with a spec should just go ahead and work on making the movie.
4. Protect Your Work Through Legal Documentation
As a filmmaker, and as a writer especially, you may be concerned about plagiarism or theft from your intellectual property. There are steps you can take to protect your work, from registering with the Writers’ Guild West to registering with the U.S. Copyright Office. You can also enter into a confidentiality agreement or a non-disclosure agreement with the party you’re pitching to. For the beginning screenwriter, these are generally unnecessary, and may aggravate your potential partner. On the other hand, if you’ve got A-list talent attached to your project and production seems only a matter of when, it is something to go over with your attorney.
Some agents or production companies won’t look at your script without a submission release agreement signed by both parties. The form seeks to protect the receiver from liability while the artist gets a guarantee they will get paid if the receiver uses the intellectual property without permission.
A reader normally reads the script and provides coverage for the producer. If they like it, they’ll recommend it to the producer, which can lead the writer or filmmaker in a number of directions, either back to the drawing board or towards a possible sale. Often a producer will like the idea enough to consider it strongly, yet won’t be ready to start. They may suggest an option agreement.
5. Start Making the Deal – The Option
In an option agreement, the producer will want exclusive rights to the screenplay or story for a specified period while they get in the best position to go to production. In consideration, they pay the creative a lump sum. During that time, the creative can’t shop the script to anyone else. If faced with a producer asking you to sign an option, it’s time to run to a lawyer. The agreement should benefit the creative in some way, the best way being a short-term option at a high price, something to motivate the producer to get to work.
When the option period is over, the agreement may expire and you both go your own ways. The period can end with execution of the option. This doesn’t mean the producer has automatically purchased the rights full-stop. It’s now time for further negotiation for a sale price. You’ll have to convince the people the producer has pulled into the project that you should make your movie.
6. The pitch
Here is one of the major hurdles of getting your movie made. Whether you’re a writer or a filmmaker, you are more than likely going to have to convince someone to produce, fund or help fund your project. You’ll take a “pitch meeting” where you have an opportunity to present your idea verbally to those who can move your project to the next step.
Presumably, at this point you’ve cultivated the connections necessary to get here. Someone you’ve met or someone who has read your script or seen a rough cut of your movie has recommended you to a person with some power in the industry. You’re ready to talk seriously about getting the movie made.
7. First Things First – Set Up a Business Entity
Indie film legends like Spike Lee and the hundreds who came before him found ways around the standard method of getting films made. Lee solicited donations from the people from his community who had faith in his vision. Others did the same but maxed out credit cards on film and had family members cater the set. Lee’s borrowing of Malcolm X’s line “by any means necessary” is the independent filmmaking ethos.
If you go this route, you’ll need the guidance of an attorney to help you through the business end. Even if you go the traditional route to filmmaking by working with an established production company and/or studio, you should still create a business entity. You will need to form a business entity like a partnership or corporation. If you act as sole proprietor, you stand to gain all if your work is financially successful, but stand to lose all if it isn’t.
Financial liability isn’t the only issue that incorporating addresses. The type of entity you create may determine how much control you have over the final product; if you have partners with a financial stake, they may have some say on your film’s final cut depending on your contractual agreement with them. A corporation may be best able to address the various legal and nuts-and-bolts issues ancillary to filmmaking such as securing music licensing and location shooting agreements.
Through the business entity, you’ll deal with financing the project. The corporation – whether you or a representative – will deal with private individuals, other production teams or studios for funding sources. You’ll be better able to attempt to get bank loans or even apply for a government arts grant. Municipal or state governments are also important to funding your project. Several states offer tax breaks and other incentives to choosing their state in which to film your opus.
While there will be some overlap, most of the above will occur when the project is in the development stage. Producers go about securing funding, try to attach actors (or other talent if necessary) and clear the path to the day when shooting begins.
If the script is dynamic and challenging it can attract big name talent looking to exercise their acting muscles (or someone looking to get their name on the list at award season time). Attracting the right talent will depend on marketing your script and generating buzz.
It isn’t unusual for projects to get stuck in development. The attached A list actor may lose interest. The studio changes hands. In the event your film is bogged down in financing problems or some other issue, you can always start work on another project while the lawyers and financiers do their jobs.
9. Creating Buzz is a Must
In 2018, and for the last several years, the Internet has been the most potent force in determining whether a film will be a financial success. One study showed the importance of buzz that happens even before the first slate claps. Internet buzz is beginning to eclipse star power as an indicator of potential opening weekend success, and independent filmmakers will use this fact to their advantage. Attaching the big star isn’t the only way to lure film fans into theaters; high-concept, modest budgeted projects can make an impact (Lady Bird and Get Out being the prime current examples).
The film festival circuit is another way to create buzz for your film. If you do good work and the taste-makers on the various film sites notice, you can ride that festival buzz into a distribution deal.
10. Sales and Distribution
Once post-production is complete and the film is in the can, filmmakers will look at methods of distribution. In the current market, indie filmmakers have a range of options. Most dream of seeing their work in a theater; however, streaming, VOD and even a direct release on physical media are viable. Eventually the distribution will be a hybrid of all of these when the film is released to the public. If you get a theatrical run, negotiations for streaming and the rest should follow.
You’ll work through a distribution agent who will purchase the rights to show your work and take a percentage of profits. You or your corporate representative will work with legal to hammer out a deal that covers theatrical releases and/or the subsequent or simultaneous streaming, VOD and Blu-Ray release. Television is still in the mix, not just as a medium for streaming but for cable television channels and packaging. The distribution arena is in flux; the current players may not be important down the line, so it’s best to develop a nimble marketing and distribution strategy.
The Model Auteur
Spike Lee’s career is the visible example of how an independent filmmaker with a singular vision gets his work to the screen. He is somewhat unique in that he combines the skill of a master filmmaker with that of a marketing genius and his own outsized, quotable personality. He used these tools to convince others to help fund what were in the past controversial projects that would have received a pass from most studios. His work with Nike and other businesses drew attention to his movies and helped him make money. The money funded his independent films and other projects produced through his 40 Acres and a Mule production company. He was never afraid to embrace the latest advances (digital cameras, straight to streaming distribution) and was not so much of a rebel that he wouldn’t take studio jobs. Today, he leverages social media to draw attention to his various projects. Not everyone will go from indie filmmaker to Academy Award nominee, yet Spike’s career offers a blueprint on how to become a working filmmaker in the industry.