TUESDAY'S BIZ TIP:

DOING THAT INDIE THING


Today's tip is not about wearing a fedora, carrying a whip and looking for the lost ark, it's about indie films. A few years back I had a regular screenwriting column in the Independent Film Channel's magazine, and I've done classes for Project Greenlight and a bunch of film festivals. I may seem like Mr. Mainstream, but I see a bunch of Indie films every year and every once in a while something like ROGER DODGER or VISITOR or WIN, WIN or MOON or IN THE CUT or THE GOOD GIRL or SHATTERED GLASS or PIECES OF APRIL makes it into a Tip Of The Day.

Since everyone is at Cannes now watching Indie films, I thought maybe we'd talk about them.

A few months ago I was at a writing conference and asked someone what their script was about. "Well, it's not a commercial story, it's more of an indie thing."

Okay, but what *is* an indie movie?

Is it a genre? After seeing a bunch of IFP members films, I wrote a tip about the "Dying Grandmother Genre" which is about a misunderstood artist - only their grandmother understands their dreams - then granny dies and they become agoraphobic and lock themselves in their rooms. All of these films (and I've seen dozens with this plot) end when their artwork is discovered and they are called geniuses and their "Get A Real Job" parents are forced to admit they were wrong about the hero's dreams.

There are also Frilly Shirt Dramas - period films about betrayal and death-by-consumption (why not terminal hiccups?), and alienated college student talkathons and Big Important Issue movies and those all-quirk-no-real-character character studiies. We all know those are Indie Films... but what about great little romantic comedies like HAPPY ACCIDENTS? Or musicals like ANYTHING FOR LOVE? Or horror flicks like BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and CABIN FEVER? (I think both played at Sundance). A MIGHTY WIND is an indie film, as are CHASING AMY and SERIES 7 and DIE MOMMY DIE! So what is an indie film?

INDEPENDENT isn't about genre or story or subject matter or Steve Buscemi playing the lead - it's about how the film was made.

Indie films are made independently. Outside the mainstream. Not by studios or producers who are part of the system. They are usually written, directed and financed by the same person. The filmmaker either maxes out their credit cards, mortgages their house, sells their body to science, or hits up his friends and family for the money. Independent means no industry source was involved in funding or making the movie. It's Do It Yourself Filmmaking.

* Robert Townsend maxed his credit cards to make HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE.
* Ed Burns financed BROTHERS McMULLEN out of pocket, borrowing equipment from his day job (he crewed for Entertainment Tonight).
* Spike Lee used credit cards and his own money and borrowed NYU equipment to make SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT.
* Robert Rodriguez was a test subject for experimental drugs to make EL MARIACHI.
* Kevin Smith scraped up $25k to make CLERKS.
* David Lynch found the money himself to make ERASER HEAD - who else would have invested in that film?

Indie filmmakers write the scripts, find the money, and then direct the films themselves.
Indie scripts aren't sold. The writer doesn't get paid, the writer PAYS to make the film.

If that indie film gets picked up by a distributor (most don't) and that distributor makes money off the film - the distributor will probably fund the writer-director's next film. So CLERKS was paid for out of Kevin Smith's pocket, but the rest of the films were funded by Miramax. When the movies stop making money, the distributor may decide to stop funding the filmmaker. Robert Altman bounced from distrib to distrib before he died - a company that financed one of my movies thought it would be prestigious to produce an Altman film... until the film flopped. Critics loved it... but almost no one bought tickets. They decided not to fund his next film.

To an indie distributor, an indie movie is *commercial*. The distribs are in it for the money! There has to be a niche audience of some sort who will pay to see the film or the film needs some exploitable element that makes it unique. IN THE CUT features Meg Ryan nekkid, CLERKS had sick humor, even a film like THE STATION AGENT has a distinct identity - a hook. Something that makes the film unique and interesting. Something that will make the film easy for the distributor to market. Does YOUR script/film have an exploitable element that makes it unique? Something that will attract an audience? An indie film doesn't need a mass audience like a mainstream film, but it needs enough people interested in paying for a ticket to make money for the distributor... or they won't pick it up at Sundance in the first place.

SHOW ME THE MONEY!

Finding outside investors for your indie film is difficult. Because the tax laws changed a couple of decades back, film is now a high risk investment (and finding people willing to invest in someone else's dream is tough if they aren't going to get their money back). Limited partnerships are regulated by the SEC - and you can only tell a certain number of people about your film and have no more than 35 investors (I think). This makes it tough to find investors... and most of them are looking for return on investment that an indie film has no little of providing. A friend of mine has used limited partnerships to find investors for horror movies, because they have a good chance of turning a profit. When he made his non-genre flick he had to fund it out of his own pocket.

If you want to sell a script, you have to have a script that the mainstream (commercial) film biz thinks will make them a lot of money... and even then it's not easy.

If you plan on going the indie route and making your own film, remember that the least expensive thing is the script, so make sure it's close to perfect. If you don't have people offering to BUY your script, it's probably not good enough to make into a film yourself. You'll end up with a film nobody wants to distribute. A major mistake many people make is to mortgage their homes to film their script because nobody wants to buy it. If nobody wanted to spend $50k to buy your script, why would they want to spend 10 - 20 times that to buy a film made from that script? An Indie script has to be amazing, because you won't have a big name star or great sets or special effects - all you really have is the script. Often your actors are non-pros who are in your film because they'll work for free... so the script has to carry them.

INDIE AUDIENCE

In this digital age, you can make your own film on credit cards... but you still need to get your finished film in front of an audience. As I said earlier, even an indie distrib is looking to make money, which means your film has to appeal to *some* kind of audience. You are still writing a script that will be made into a film that people will want to pay to see... just not hundreds of millions of people. Both NAPOLEON DYNOMITE and GARDEN STATE were comedies packed with gags that even a mainstream audience could appreciate. They were entertaining *and* quirky and different. They had "juice" (entertaining elements). If you're going to go the Indie route and make your own movie, you still need to know who your audience is going to be and make sure your story provides them with entertainment. That entertainment may not be mainstream (there's something "entertaining" about Kyle Maclaughlin finding a severed human ear on a freshly mowed lawn in BLUE VELVET), but it's entertaining to enough people to justify a distrib either releasing your film in a handful of cinemas or pressing a few thousand DVDs.

Without a distrib, you can press your own Blurayss or release on a VOD platform or enter the film in as many festivals as you can afford. At Raindance years ago I saw a bunch of Indie films without distribs, but the one that probably got picked up was a really strange thriller film, CALVARE, which will probably be marketed as a horror film. Some of the others had a chance because they had some sort of "juice" - usually they were on the fringe of some popular genre or had a star.

A flick like PRIMER which screened at Raindance and was picked up at Sundance, is a mind-bender sci-fi flick about time travel... and how the power to alter your life can be used for good or evil. It was clever and confusing (in that good, MEMENTO way)... and very well written. The kind of script that would have generated a lot of interest on its own (but not been commercial enough to sell). The script was the star in PRIMER - with time folding back on itself and the idea that short term time travel creates duplicate people... and that if you record and remember what you said and did the first time around, you can use it to your advantage on subsequent trips back in time. A tricky, cleverly constructed script. That's why the film got picked up.

An "Indie Film" is also commercial, just to a niche audience. Do you know what your niche is? Do you know what the "hook" for your story is? Why would people (other than your mother) want to see this film? What is the "entertainment value"? Things to think about before making the film and before writing the script.

Indie or mainstream - great films start with great scripts!


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