Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Wrong Way is - Wrong

"What you resist persists and what you allow to be disappears"
-Dan Pallotta, Stop Thinking Outside the Box. Harvard Business Review*

The author of the above quote claims it is a zen saying, but while I did a little research, I could not find an original attribution, and found it on more self-help sites that anywhere near a Buddhist site. However, as a longtime practitioner, it is certainly true.**

What inspired this search about not thinking outside the box was an article I read in a blog on Linkedin. I won't link the article here, or give its author, as I neither wish to promote it or get into an online feud with the author, who I imagine - or at least hope - thinks he is giving good advice.

What he is actually doing is encouraging the worst instincts in emerging filmmakers who want to hear that they can make their script into a movie regardless of how difficult the script or how little they are able to raise.

Below is the article in its entirely (I didn't want to be accused of taking him out of context), with identification and links removed:

Budgeting the correct way. There is obviously only one method to use for budgeting once you have your screenplay and are preparing a budget for your script to be made into a feature film “the right way”.
“The right way”, “Can you prepare a budget for me… the right way”, “I want to do it right”, “What is it going to cost to make this movie”… These are the most common statements I heard 30 years ago when I was hustling gigs as a Production Manager, Assistant Director or, hopefully, a Line Producer from first-time Producers or Directors…even Screenwriters.
“The right way”!
“The right way”?
I know how to do a budget. I worked for Roger Corman (King of the Bs), a producer/distributor who has made almost 700 feature films that have all allegedly made profits. I know what things cost.
  • Renting Cameras.
  • Hiring Crew.
  • Renting Locations.
  • Building Sets.
  • Securing Film Permits.
  • Paying for Insurance.
  • Casting Actors.
  • Renting a Grip Truck.
  • Paying a Gaffer.
  • Feeding a Crew.
  • Buying Props & Wardrobe.
Forms, contracts, agreements, deals… I did it, I did it, I did it…
I wrote the checks. I made the deals and not by theory but by actually doing. I asked for “rates”, I haggled, I negotiated, I never paid retail, I begged, I made the deals.
I would listen to a vendor, an equipment supplier, an actor, a crew person tell me what they charged; then I would say “Cash?”
I truly know what things cost when making a low-budget or independent feature film and I discovered that budgeting the “right way” is really, in reality, the “wrong way”. Now allow me present the proper approach to budgeting.
Back-to-basics: There are two ways of doing a budget. The first is the “right way” and the second is the “wrong way”. What I discovered from the school of hard knocks is the “right way” doesn’t work.
Permit me to explain. The “right way” is you go to the Writers Store website and buy a movie-budget software (Movie Magic, Guerilla, Easy or ShowBiz) or even try a freeware (celtx).
Load it onto your computer then fill in every line item “The Right Way”. Doing this the “right way”, and filling-in every single line item as if it is an “absolute must”, which it probably is if making your movie the “right way” and you will inherently come up with a budget that is between $2 Million to $200 Million.
You print it out, all 40-70 pages, with a proper Title Page and Top Sheet and you now have almost 130-200 pages (your script at 90-120 and the budget at 40-60) of typing. Combine this with some actor head-shots and agreements, some CV resumes of key crew personnel, a couple of storyboard panels, a poster, a festival plan and a business plan and you have one-hell of a package….which is totally useless!
Get real.
Who the heck is going to give you, a first-timer, $2-$200 Million? Who? Come on, answer. Get real. Who?
Answer: No one.
So the “right way”, which can be called the “Studio Method”, the method taught at those $200,000 4-year film schools, USC or NYU, gets you stuck in a deadend and nowhere.
Now, let’s prepare a budget the “wrong way”, which can be called the “Independent Method”, is the method that will actually work for you, the first-timer, for your first feature film.
This is the method used by Roger Corman when he hires someone, a Line Producer or Co-Producer, to make a movie. He simply says, “You’ll get $150,000. Can you make it for that?” Your answer better be instantly, no hesitating allowed, “Absolutely, Mr Corman”
So what is the “wrong way” to prepare a budget?
The “wrong way” is first pick a number, a dollar amount, in the above example from Mr Corman the number was $150,000. Ergo, you know your budget instantly. Now lets figure out how to allocate that money over cast, crew, equipment, locations, food, etc to get this movie made… “the best way possible” but made.
Simple. Just pick a number, a dollar amount that you truly believe you have access too independently, but not by deal making, but by your savings account, or what a group of friends & relatives might give you, or what a crowd fund group might offer with proper donations.
So the “wrong way”, or the “Independent Method”, of prepping a budget is to actually pick the DOLLAR AMOUNT first. Then back into it.
Thus, if you want to Budget with a method that Guarantees you will make the movie you first pick the dollar amount that you will have access to…and that’s the budget.
I know it’s the “wrong way” but it works… Guaranteed!

Whether his intentions were the best or to simply drive more work his way, the result is the same. He is encouraging the worst instincts in filmmakers; namely, that if there's a will there's a way, and regardless of the difficulty of the script or how little they can raise, the result will be everything they seek.

Only, it won't be.

I have first-hand seen the wreckage of the thinking advocated here, and it's never pretty. What he describes is not only the "wrong way" but what I call the Wish Budget, and it always ends up with trouble.

So, why won't his "wrong way" work? Let me bring in some of the sound advice from a business perspective in the article linked in the title from Harvard Business Review.

In that article, Pallotta says:

Thinking outside the box without understanding the box is a petulant exercise in resistance — every idea that comes from the process has the box written all over it. It’s a reaction to the box. It’s fighting the box. It’s a child of the box

Mr. "Wrong Way" has the box wrong to begin with, so he can never conquer it.

He starts with the assumption that the only alternative to reckless, no-budget filmmaking is the Studio System, where every film needs to be "$2 to $200 million," and he mocks actually breaking down the script and budgeting it first, which I find odd from someone who, at least according to his bio, has been a line producer (his IMDB says differently).***

Sadly, he starts with a truth and comes to the wrong conclusion.

He sounds convincing. After all, he says:

I know how to do a budget. I worked for Roger Corman (King of the Bs), a producer/distributor who has made almost 700 feature films that have all allegedly made profits. I know what things cost.

When he says this, he leaves out a lot of information. First, Corman had a distribution outlet - New Concorde. He knew that even if the film was horrible - as many of this guy's films are - it had a guaranteed way to make money.

The Corman motto varied on "Blood, Breasts and Beasts." "Bombs" were sometimes mixed in there. As such, if your script does not fit that format, then Mr. Wrong Way's formula doesn't work.

Furthermore, even with his own distribution network, it is an outdated formula. The last film that met this formula for Corman was in 2006 - Cry the Winged Serpent. That was nine years ago - and did you ever see that film? Neither did I. Neither did most people in the United States - or anywhere else.

To be kind, Mr Wrong Way's entire premise is a lie.

When I get a script, the first thing I ask the person is how much they think they can raise. As most of these are independent and will be looking for financing, most will fall somewhere in the SAG INDIE world, anywhere from $200K to $2M.  It would, as he suggests, be fruitless for me to give them a budget based on all union rate books and salaries for A-List talent.

However, once I get that number, we get to the reality of the situation, namely, what is the script?

Yes, last summer, I produced a film for under $100K - all the director had raised. However, almost all of it took place in one location, a nightclub he managed, and there was no location fee. He was also very flexible on the shooting style, allowing us to move much faster than we normally would have done.

By contrast, a few months ago, a director brought me a very good script about Haitian refugees. It included the aftermath of an earthquake, shooting in three countries (Haiti, the Bahamas and the US) and a good deal of time at sea with the refugees in a rickety boat on a turbulent sea. He thought the maximum he could raise was $300K or so.

I told him I doubted that could work, but I would try to put something together at that number. As you might imagine, that budget would have slashed his idea to pieces, shot in one country, cheated much of the filming on the water, and it still came in a little high. The lowest realistic number we could come up with was $625K, which still kept him under the SAG Modified Low Agreement. As we wanted to work with some US actors, we needed to be a SAG film.

Even at that number, he was going to have to make certain concessions. As we talked, those concessions would mean a movie that had none of the force or even the message of his script. He didn't want to make that film.

This was not just the case of being a stubborn artist. As Stan, who actually was a Corman producer, often said, "First, you have to make the movie."

What you really have to decide is whether you are making the movie just to see your name in the credits, as a vanity, or whether there is a vision you want to bring to the screen, because neither the $300K nor the $625K version of this film would have had much of a chance of making their money back. As such, you would just be bilking your investors so you could say you made a movie, and have very little chance of ever making a second one.

Neither an ethical choice nor a good career move.

I recently had another gentleman who wanted to do a period piece from the 1960s with a lot of young teens, who, of course, are minors and subject to child labor laws that restrict their hours. It also had a lot of baseball.  He, too, asked about $300K.

I read the script. There was likely a way to make it, but with big concessions. It would not work as a period piece; he would have to make it more contemporary. Fewer players. Fewer locations.

That would be possible, but the script would lose much of its charm.

I did not charge him for that advice, and told him that anyone who told him that he could do it for that amount was misleading him just to charge him for a budget. Mind you, while he doesn't do budgets, he has been "in the business" for a long time.

A few days later these was an ad for someone to do a budget.

He will find someone like Mr. Wrong Way who will convince him that he can do it. Then he will sink his life-savings into it - he already told me he was willing to do that - and, if he was like another filmmaker I worked with, mortgage his home.

All of that sounds very romantic. In the movies, a guy like that would win in the end, despite what skeptics like me think.

In the real world, he would find himself broke with a film that only friends and family would get to see.

In reality, the time to "pick a number" is before you type fade-in. I have many creative and talented friends in the horror and sci-fi worlds who do amazing things with the slimmest of budgets, some of whom can be found in the blog links to the right of this post. From years of plying their craft, they know what they can and cannot afford to do, and so they stick to those parameters when writing their scripts.

"Simple. Pick a budget...." Mr Wrong Way suggests. Do I even have to explain why this is a bad idea? Why it won't work?

What angers me is that in giving this advice, he is preying on the vulnerable, those who desperately want to make their movie. They want someone who tells them not to listen to the "experts" who tell them it can't be done.

This is how snake oil salesmen used to work, preying on the weak and the sick. This is the fortune teller who tells you that Mr. Right is just around the corner. After all, who is going back to a fortune teller who tells you that there are no princes waiting for you, just real people who may make you happy or may break your heart. That is real life.

Mr Wrong Way says:

So the “right way”, which can be called the “Studio Method”, the method taught at those $200,000 4-year film schools, USC or NYU, gets you stuck in a deadend and nowhere.

Again, our friend from the Harvard Business Review has an explanation.

"The box thrives on your impatience with it."

Making a low-budget independent film requires a lot of hard work, along with a leap of faith. No amount of planning will guarantee success, and even doing it the right way almost always means doing it with less than you would like to have. It's neither comfortable nor easy. It does require sacrifice, and being willing to make concessions.

All of that after raising the right amount of money.  That is the independent method, not:

So the “wrong way”, or the “Independent Method”, of prepping a budget is to actually pick the DOLLAR AMOUNT first. Then back into it.

But Mr. Wrong Way insists it works. What does he say?

Thus, if you want to Budget with a method that Guarantees you will make the movie you first pick the dollar amount that you will have access to…and that’s the budget.
I know it’s the “wrong way” but it works… Guaranteed!
Guaranteed?  Perhaps the only industry as risky as film is opening a restaurant. The number of independent films that make a profit - or even break even - is low. The number varies, but numbers I've seen over the past few years are about 5-10%. In his book Hope for Film, Ted Hope, who has been a successful independent producer with a variety of types of truly indie films, has says that most independent films can't make money with the current distribution model, and that many of the films that made money for him in the 1990s would not even break even today.

This is not to discourage people from making movies and taking that risk. That is why we are all in this business. But, they should do so with eyes wide open.

So, who is doing the guaranteeing here? Is Mr. Wrong Way going to give you and your investors back the rest of your/their money if the film, like most, does not break even? Hmm, he must have left that part out.

Pallotta has a great example of what truly defeats the box in describing a campaign his company put together for National Breast Cancer Coalition.

In the breast cancer fundraising field, it’s all about who can out-hope the competition. Hope, hope, hope is the mantra everywhere. So our campaign for the National Breast Cancer Coalition became: “We’re giving up hope.” The message was that hope is not what overcomes great obstacles. Deadlines and commitment do. And the organization has committed itself to an end to breast cancer in 10 years.

It's like my mantra when first hired to line produce. There will be times I am going to have to present you with tough choices. That doesn't make me popular, but if you had a deadly disease, would you want a doctor who told you only the best-case scenario or one who clearly tells you what you are up against, but will be there to fight with you?

If you want good news hire family, I tell them. It's their job to comfort you. It's my job to get you well and keep you well.

A producer friend of mine recently suggested that she gets tired of working with people who think they are working "outside the box," but who are just ignoring it.

Sometimes thinking outside the box is really just fitting a square peg in a round hole. If it's not Apollo 13, that probably won't work.

Outside the box. Square peg round hole. A guy I have the pleasure of working with now has a better solution, based on yet another tired axiom.

"I don't want to reinvent the wheel," he says. "I just want to make it go faster."

*It's a great article regardless of your profession. I highly recommend you read it.

**The instruction when following your breath in meditation is that when a thought comes up, acknowledge it, then let it go. What we all know is that if you try to force it out of your mind, to fight it, it just becomes stronger.  More details here.

*** While he claims:

These are the most common statements I heard 30 years ago when I was hustling gigs as a Production Manager, Assistant Director or, hopefully, a Line Producer from first-time Producers or Directors…even Screenwriters.
his IMDB has NO First AD credits, NO line producer credits, and NO UPM credits. It has ONE producer credit - from 1988 - for a movie with no name talent that I doubt anyone here has seen. To be fair, I know from working with Stan that many Corman-produced films (as opposed to films he directed) are not on IMDB, which is only further proof of what an anomaly they are.


Kangas said...

Agree with you most fully. I think his point is valid that you don't need to own the software or fill out every line item in there if you DO own the software.

But yeah, he really should have mentioned that it all starts at the script level--don't write a million dollar script if you know all you've got is $50K.

Then again, would it matter at all either way? I can't tell you how many times I've given practical advice to young filmmakers who then went on to completely ignore me only to find out that I actually knew what I was talking about...

I never would have completed my first film successfully(and done it well enough to get distribution that put us in the black) if I hadn't listened to a TON of people's advice ahead of time.

JB Bruno said...

Kangas. Thanks for your comments.

You are definitely one of those folks I was referring to who know how to get the most out of a micro budget, but you don't just "pick a number" - you know what your films will reasonably sell for, at what cost you have a reasonable expectation of making a profit, and a track record of projects that bring you repeat customers. All of that took a hell of a lot more time than his article suggests.

It was exactly because his advice seems so tempting to those who are inclined to make those mistakes that I felt compelled to write this. I have no control on whether they listen or not.

Kangas said...

Well hey, here's hoping! And keep posting! It's blogs like yours that ensure I am far less productive than I should be! :)