Film Distribution, Development and Beyond (Part 1)
What Film School should tell you. Good Film distribution really starts with good development.
By Kelly Schwarze – Filmmaker and Author of “What Film Schools Don’t Tell You”
Before we get into the essence of film distribution, I want to talk about development, because screenplay development is where most projects fail from the start. Many filmmakers are so eager to get into production that they miss the most important aspect of the process, which is development. Good film distribution starts with having developed the right type of content for the marketplace. Additionally, the most important aspect of the movie process is having a solid script that works on many levels. What am I talking about, a solid script? There are a lot of variables that go into the term solid script, so let’s explore a few.
I would define solid script by the following criteria:
- a well-written work, good dialogue, a fresh idea, and a different twist on a familiar theme
- A script with a limited number of locations and production headaches
- A script or idea that fits one of the more popular genre molds: action, suspense thriller, horror, sci-fi, children/family
- A screenplay with a limited cast count
- A project you can self-produce and finance under a $100,000
- A script between 75 and 80 pages
A well-written work
Whether you are hiring someone to write a screenplay, or wearing that hat yourself, you should aim to make your material as shoot-ready as possible. Moreover, it is super crucial to have a script that coveys a visual language for film, and can almost illustrate a “shot-for-shot account of the movie. This method resides in the action slug lines of your script. ” For example:
Bill walks into a dark room.
Okay, so what’s wrong with that you may ask? To me this says nothing visually. It would be more interesting to the reader, and helpful to you as the filmmaker if it were written more like this?
A dark room is cut in half by a bright sliver of light. A door slowly opens revealing the solute of a man. He lingers for a beat before his expensive dress shoes slide onto the dusty hardwood. The light switch is flipped on. Bill stands in the threshold looking around, aimlessly.
More work – yes, but it’s much more impactful and will ultimately help you as a director.
I used to never consider myself a screenwriter. But with these techniques, I feel I can transform mediocre drafts into shoot-ready scripts. Writing this way allows me to convey cinematic expression, while offering a roadmap to shooting the movie.
A script with a limited number of locations
There are many examples of successful movies that have been in limited-location settings. Take for example the movie Last Shift, directed by Anthony Diblasi, where the entire movie took place in a recently closed police precinct. Or, All Is Lost, directed by J. C. Chandor, starring Robert Redford, where he was lost at sea. The entire movie took place on a boat. You can also look at Rodrigo Cortes’s 2010 hit, Buried, where a truck driver (Ryan Reynolds) finds himself stuck in a pine box somewhere in Iraq. Limited locations are your best friend when making a low-budget movie.
A few examples of locations that offer various settings are:
Shopping malls (parking-lot structures, restrooms, shops, boiler rooms.)
Office Buildings (restrooms, offices, parking structures, elevators, storage rooms.)
Mansions or large homes (kitchens, staff quarters, hallways, yards, pools, living quarters, garages, basements, offices, pools, gardens, forests, beaches, mountains.)
You also want to consider sound when writing for locations. Could your location produce loud crowd noises, road and air-traffic hindrances? Can the location be closed off for filming for a reasonable price? For example, closing off an airport terminal can cost thousands of dollars.
Try writing for locations that can be controlled for both sound purposes and logistical reasons. The less production fuss you have dealing with a location, the more you’re able to shoot, therefor the less time you spend on set servicing the fuss. Location is very important to your story, but it should not be a headache on top of all the other challenges you face making a movie.
A script or idea that fits one of the more popular genre molds
Picking the right genre is the starting point to all positive and negative outcomes to a film distribution. Furthermore, having the right genre choice may help you narrow down investor needs and talent. Before a movie is green-lit in Hollywood, it goes through several stages of what the industry calls development. In this vetting process of economics and market research, there are teams of people who are employed to vet content. Moreover, most Hollywood studios employee readers to sift through hundreds of screenplays to pick the best candidates for vetting process. So my question to the reader is, “Why not employ these same steps to your project development?”
Let’s be clear though, I am not an advocate for any particular genre, nor do I assume to be an expert on any particular one. However, I do understand the market pretty well. My twenty-plus years in the movie industry has taught me a lot about what types of movies to make.
Comedy: Huge risk
Action: Think Safety, Budget, International Focus
Sci-Fi: Think type of sci-fi, technical team needed, locations, and visual effects
Horror: Think practical effects, playing with dark spaces, and common themes.
Holiday, Children and Family Films: Think, production value, morals, and television
Faith-Based and Religious Movies: Think about audience, and supplement material
A screenplay with a limited cast count
Cast matters. A small cast matters more. In recent years I have worked hard at developing stories that require a very small cast. My recent movies typically involve three to five actors and rarely exceed ten people. When making a micro-budget movie, consolidation is key. Additionally, too many performers can drive up labor costs and inhibit your ability to stay on budget. Keeping your cast size smaller forces you to do more with less, and places the priority on performance, more so than scale.
A project you can self-produce and finance under a $100K?
The most common question I get when I talk about the micro budget model is “What do you get for $30K, $50K, a $100K?” The answer always depends on what skills and tools you already have at your disposal.
The quality of film you produce should not be reflected in your budget constraints. In fact it’s the other way around.
Your script should reflect two things:
- Your abilities as a moviemaker
- A production that can be shot in 15–18 days or fewer, with limited locations and cast.
Regardless if you’re a seasoned filmmaker with several movies under your wings, or you’re just getting started, you should know and understand your abilities and use them to your advantage. Any person can make a good movie as long as their limitations are worked into the equation.
A script with the page count between 75 and 80 pages
I’m sure you’ve heard the adage a script should be as long as it needs to be. And as much as I could agree with that statement, the producer side of my brain kicks in and says, “That’s fine as long as it’s not more than eighty pages!” It is truly astounding to me when first-time moviemakers set out to make movie scripts that are around 120 pages, and in some cases even more For every page you have, you need to factor in time to shoot it.
On average, you can expect to film four to six pages per day. That is taking into accounts that your talent is ready to go and all cylinders are firing like they should. I truly believe that even the best filmmakers would struggle to get a meaningful six pages per day filmed without utterly rushing it. So let’s be conservative and play with some basic math and add a two-day contingency just for safety.
Knowing where to start
Here’s the thing. If you don’t know where to start in finding a screenplay that hits these areas that I’ve mentioned, do not fret. There are tons of great examples of movies out there that are certain to give you some inspiration. Do a search for movies (successful movies) that were successful in the criteria mentioned in this post. Take the time to reverse engineer what others did, and learn from it.
If you would like to learn more about this stuff, be sure to check out my new book:
What Film Schools Don’t Tell You
Your Basic Guide to Making Movies and Finding Good Distribution.
That’s all for now. Make Movies!
Kelly Schwarze is an Emmy © Nominated filmmaker who has written directed and produced 7 feature films, dozens of music vides and commercials, and has owned successful media companies in Las Vegas.
Kelly also does one-on-one consulting for filmmakers. Click here for more details.
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