Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Unattainable - Part 5 - The High Cost of Free

"Nothing of value is free. Even the breath of life is purchased at birth through gasping and effort and pain"
-Robert A. Heinlein, Science Fiction author and visionary

And people say I'm not a cheery guy.

Heinlein may have been taking the deeper route when discussing the idiom that nothing in life is free, but my mentor, Stan Bickman, used to refer to it as the "high cost of free."

On any budget, a line producer is looking for value, but on extremely low budgets such as the ones I mostly work on, success and failure hinge on actually getting things of value, if not for free, then for a significant discount - and the two are not the same.

Some of my favorite readers, who have blogs of their own, have successfully found things they truly did get for free or for a token amount, mostly working on truly micro-budgets. I give them credit.

The problem with budgets under $1M but higher than, say, $100-$200K is that there is a level of expectation among the crew about rates, for one, and, for another, if you are going to get a distributor, you need to bring a different level of production value, comparable with films of higher budgets.

The Unattainable is, in no way, a genre film, easy to describe or pigeon-hole. Creatively, that is not only a good thing, but potentially a great thing. If the final version of the film is anywhere near the director's vision, or a representation of her skills, it will be a unique film that will shine like a diamond.

On a lower budget, it chose to achieve the look of some ground-breaking movies from the distant and recent past. I won't name those movies here, as people seeing the final project might then say, "Oh, isn't that just like so-and-so movie" and the comparison is more about mood and tone than subject matter.

All of that being said, to achieve that, we needed that perfect combination of connections, skill, hard-work and luck to pull it off. That is the formula for miracles, and those don't happen every day.

There were areas where our connections did an incredible job, including securing a high-end camera package, a great post facility and digital dailies for the 16MM portion of the movie at significant discounts, without which the project would have been grounded early on, or been forced to make very harsh adjustments.

In other areas, we were not as fortunate.

In the NY area, getting quality locations for even a good rate has been difficult. Over twenty years of all the Law and Order franchise, not to mention Blue Bloods and the film industry that comes here and throws money around, and it's hard to offer locations Muscatel after they've had champagne.

Stan used one of my favorite phrases, "How much is this free location costing me," in exactly this area, in references the home of an uncle of the director that, sure enough, wound up costing more than originally bargained.

Here is the thing about locations. Your friend owns a restaurant, or bar. You tell him or her that you are making a movie that is close to your heart on a small budget, and can you shoot there for free. Sure, they say. This is while you may still be sitting in their place writing your script.

Now, it comes time to actually shoot. The scene will take 11 hours to film, and involve closing down his business for that amount of time, not filming in some corner. Strike One. Next, we may not have flexibility on time of day. Let's say he offers you 8 hours from 4AM until 12 noon. That's great, but it also has to correspond with the shooting schedule for your movie. Are you on days or nights?

Turnaround. Strike Two. If you need crew to be there at 4AM, then they must have wrapped by 2PM (10 hours) the previous day - and that is tight. SAG actors need to get 12 hour turnaround.

On our shoot, our lead actress was in all but about 3 pages of the script. It was rarely possible to leave her out of a scene.

Strike three can be so many things. Their idea of a "good rate" may be good by industry standards, but not your budget. Their business has been slow and they can't close. It's near the Holidays and they are having parties. They recently got a bad health inspector rating and they are having work done. The place is in an over-shot "red zone" and the city is not giving permits there.

On and on the possibilities go.

With apartments, there is the issue that most people in the city rent, which means you need permission of the landlord. If you do own, it's likely co-op, which means getting approval of a board. Good luck with that.

It may have been one thing when you were shooting your student film in your friend's apartment with about 10 people total. I have a crew and cast of 42 people on any given day, and a two cube trucks were needed to carry my camera package and my G/E gear.

You're not sneaking that in.

Then, there is art department, which is linked to the location. They are two areas where you normally trade budget; if you find the great location for a great rate, you can spend more to dress it if it doesn't look right. If you find a location that is close to dressed the way it is meant to be dressed, you can pay a higher fee because you will be spending less to dress it.

This is the "taking from Peter to pay Paul" part of line producing, and while the term is not a positive one in the business world, it is common in the film world.

Our main problem was our "hero" location - the apartment of the main character. We knew we would be there for eight days, and that, with scenes taking place currently, in the character's imagination and in the past, that we needed a flexible set dress. Additionally, there were logistical considerations (french doors) and the possibility of reflections, and the ability to light through windows, which the DP felt was crucial. The latter limited us to first or second floor apartments or someplace with a penthouse or terrace, neither of which would have made any sense for the main character.

Our location manager worked out a good rate, if not one that was close to what we hoped to pay. Nothing in the apartment was right from a dressing standpoint, which meant moving and storing all of the furniture that was there.

The next thing was one of those classic examples of why "free" isn't always so "free."

One of our producers had just the right furniture - beautiful furniture - and offered to let us use it for free. We needed a 20 foot truck to pick it up significantly outside the city, the manpower to get it, and, at the end of the shooting period, to return it. As my production designer was quick to point out, the manpower to move it (we used professional movers to do the return), the truck rental, the parking of the truck, the gas and tolls etc were not part of her department's cost, and technically, she is right.

But, for the line producer, that does not really matter. It is money spent that was not budgeted, that needs to be made up somewhere else. As I pointed out in the previous post, no department thinks they should be the "somewhere else."

The latter donation by this producer crosses more than one idiom; both the high cost of free and Murphy's Law of no good deed going unpunished. This woman was more than generous, and as it turned out, the "professional movers" actually did some damage to what was magnificent furniture.

Then, there are vendors.

With vendors, the "deal" you got the last time is not necessarily the deal you get this time. The great camera package deal came at the last minute with a contact from one of our exec producers - the contact of the producer as well as a long-term contact of mine were fifty percent higher and more.

Then, there is crew. The reality of getting quality crew in NY is that even on a non-union film, you are paying something close to the lower union rates, and paying overtime and meal-penalties, if you want to get top-flight talent.

Again, this is an area where folks who do genre films consistently insist - and I believe them - that they can go a cheaper route, but with the background and reputation of some of the key crew we brought on, we were never going to get much better rates.

In specialty areas, there is always the question of how busy the city is in terms of work. A fantastic steadicam operator - and great guy - worked a few days for us for an unheard of rate, at first because he and I had a relationship, and later because he fell in love with the project and the director. Still, he was booked on many of the days we needed him, and even those he recommended were often booked.

These are only some examples, and I use them not to complain but to explain to aspiring "guerrilla filmmakers" some of the ways reality can intrude on the optimism you bring to items you think you will get free or cheap when budgeting. My hope is that these experiences help you to hopefully build something of a contingency into the money you raise.

This is not to be all negative. My staff and I got many great rates, and the producers and exec producers did bring in some great favors.

Still, whenever someone tells me that they can get something for free, a little twitch, more like an electrical shock from some torture device, goes off inside of me.

As The Boss reminds Mary in Thunder Road:

"From your front porch to my front seat,
The door is open but the ride it ain't free."

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