In 2010, Jamil Walker Smith and I began working on our first feature film: THE AMERICAN DREAM. I was a programmer at the Urbanworld Film Festival in NYC, and I selected Jamil’s short film, THE SON, to screen in the Shorts Narrative Competition that year. He told me he made the film for $500. I told him I wanted to make films, and if he could write a script we could execute for very little money, I could ensure it was produced. And so began little plow films.
THE AMERICAN DREAM (formerly MAKE A MOVIE LIKE SPIKE) premiered at Santa Barbara Film Festival in 2011 and went on to screen at over 20 festivals worldwide including Cinequest, Edinburgh, Ashland an coming full circle at Urbanworld in 2012 where Jamil won best director! Our film is already 2 and half years in the making and doesn’t show signs of slowing down anytime soon.
I never expected making a film would be so much like raising a child. It’s a never-ending process. I feel like a doula – an advocate for the artists’ original vision – ensuring the director is insulated and protected enough to ‘birth the film and bring it to life.’ But the raising of the child is the festival and distribution game and it’s equally important! What they don’t tell you is how much energy you must devote to ensuring people actually know you made a film and communicating to them how they can actually see it.
Indiewire’s ‘Indie Military Drama “The American Dream” Will Be Released on DVD/VOD/Digital July 3rd’
We live by the mantra: pay as much attention to the end as the beginning and remember there is no real end – you are already on top of the mountain, now you have to build a house! When you are exhausted from being a multi-hyphenate, broke, depressed “indie” filmmaker, it’s important to remember your love of the process as much as the results you strive for. Finding a balance between staying focused on your goals and staying focused on the story and creative process is the beautiful struggle we find ourselves living in today. We are definitely ‘living the question’ because we don’t have answers, and we can’t give you advice, because we aren’t you, but we can share with you a few lessons we’ve learned along the way:
Lesson 1: Use What You Have
We deliberately chose to make our film using the very means of production that the characters in the film would have access to: a pro-sumer camera, real locations instead of sets, Home Depot lights, and friends and family members in place of professional actors). Our mission was to use the lack of means to production to serve, not hinder the power of the story. This means we were able to produce a feature film with a production budget of $40K. Like the Street Art movement, we made this film using our own money and without permission. Inspired by the Dogme 95 and Italian Neo-Realist movements, THE AMERICAN DREAM is indie sensibility at its’ core. The film captures the urgency and angst of today’s youth and explores the strides a young person must make in order to be an artist in today’s society – in order to live the “American Dream.” The story of THE AMERICAN DREAM centers on Luis, a young man who is rejected from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and decides to attend LA City College instead. Circumstances that seem to overwhelm his passage into manhood and his development as an artist force him to drop out of LACC and join the Marine Corp with his best friend Ronald. Armed with dreams that extend beyond their block, Luis and Ronald make a movie documenting their last 36 hours before shipping off to Afghanistan. In their darkest hour, they turn on the video camera for the last time and document the final moments of their journey home. They soon realize that their dreams and promises of a new life mean nothing in a place called War.
Lesson 2: Let Film Festivals Come to You
The film is a narrative: scripted, deliberate and created by intense rehearsal and prep, shot as a POV film – so rehearsed that it feels spontaneous and people always ask us if it’s a documentary. Sometimes you find the magic in being so prepared you allow for the spirits to have their way with you, and that’s what happened with our film. It’s a war film with no war. An exploration of the diversity of the African-American experience. A coming-of-age comedy and a docudrama simultaneously. We have officially drawn outside the lines. Sometimes programmers aren’t going to understand your film. But some will. Despite being difficult to categorize, the film had a great festival run. It screened at over 20 festivals worldwide. We screened everywhere from Santa Barbara, CA to Edinburgh, Scotland. We were very excited when our film was requested for Urbanworld, and even more excited when One Village/Image Entertainment acquired our film there! Our experience at Urbanworld came full-circle. We began to think that our little film was all grown up and ready to live on its’ own. In the midst of this festival run, we discovered that you can spend a lot of money applying to festivals but once your film has screened at 2 or 3 big festivals, other smaller festivals will often request screeners of your film for consideration. Save your money and understand the rules and determining factors of the programs at each festival – do not apply randomly – you must have a strategy in place and remember festivals make money off of your film – you don’t – so use them as a great platform to build buzz and stay in touch with your fans.
Lesson 3: Keep Your Intended Audience in Mind
We didn’t make the film with a traditional film festival audience in mind but we were happily surprised to find that almost every person who saw the film responded positively. They saw themselves or their brother or their son in the characters on screen. We discovered that our film had a larger audience that we first imagined. This was great but created an unexpected problem. It was tempting to overlook our originally intended audience: disenfranchised, young people who are targeted by the military for recruitment. These young people are not usually (invited to be) in a film festival audience. As filmmakers, we had to come up with alternative ways to show them the film. Even with a distributor in place, we realized that if we wanted our film to be seen by a certain group of people, we would need to find them and reach out to them ourselves. Our film had not become as self-sufficient as we thought. It still needed our full attention.
Lesson 4: You Can Spend Endless Money on
Promoting Your Film
It should be noted that both Jamil and I are still working full-time jobs in the midst of the festivals and film promotion. We made the film for $40,000 but we did not pay ourselves. It’s a luxury to make a micro-budget film and the production cost does not include all the love, favors and in-kind support we received to make it possible. Hit The Ground Running, Inc is one of the top music supervision companies in the world and they ensured we had a really tight soundtrack – that is such an amazing gift to an indie filmmaker – as we know, bad music and sound are less forgivable then poor quality image and our soundtrack really set us on a special path to success. Once the film was completed, there were hundreds of other expenses we didn’t plan for. From postcards to the trailer to marketing, promotion and festival travel. There are expenses associated with delivering a film to a distributor. There are fees and costs involved with film festivals. Community screenings usually require a venue fee. Websites require a website developer you must pay. We learned the hard way that a film costs a lot more than just the production!
Lesson 5: Your Film Keeps Going
Even now, we are not finished “raising” our film. We are still reaching out to community groups. With the DVD release just days away, we are doing interviews and social media campaigns and creating new marketing materials. We’re beginning to wonder if our film will ever truly live on its own, without our constant shepherding hand, but now the people will have a chance to see and respond to the film and we can’t wait to start the dialogue all over again – for the first time!
Lesson 6: You Can’t Stop
Even while we can’t completely let THE AMERICAN DREAM go, we are still moving forward. We have one feature script finished. A short in development. And another feature length script we are writing now. We are looking for collaborators while trying to do what we can without them. Any success we have achieved so far is due to hard work, community-building and perseverance. We love what we do and what we make so we just keep going and we will never stop!
Additional notes to consider!
-Ask yourself: “What Can I Do Without Them?” Don’t wait to ask for permission. Don’t wait for the machine to come to you – create your own industry based on the realities of your time and money situation and don’t compare yourself to other people – everyone has a different journey.
-People don’t like change. Remember good films require good audiences. Sometimes resistance to your film is a result of the curators not recognizing it’s sheer innovative brilliance – sometimes it means it’s not very good. Be honest with yourself about what you’ve been able to achieve and remove yourself from the project enough to honestly decipher between positive and negative resistance to its’ success.
-It can be tempting to focus on the wrong audience – tracking people down who aren’t responsive. Don’t waste your time. After 3 un-returned emails or calls, leave them alone and move on. The industry is small and you will meet them in another capacity when the time is right.
-Life is long and films are long! Make sure you love the story – make sure it’s a story you have to tell – and make sure you work with people you love – or at least respect. One negative person on your team can disrupt the entire energy of the production and you need to be in a position to put the project before any one individual.
-Listen to your instincts and make decisions based on the possibility of gain, not the fear of loss. Be bold. This is your film life, not your life! You must take care of yourself and your physical well-being so your creative well-being can flourish.
-Keep clear records of your blueprint of the film – the break down and articulation of your vision from the inception of the idea onward, so you can share it you’re your distributor and/or share it with your audience if you self-release. Remember they/you will USE the photos you take on set, the trailer you create, the poster ideas you have – the more you give them and work with them the more your vision will be consistent throughout the life of your film.
-Everyone says “no” except the right person. Keep pushing forward, and sometimes you have to lean back farther to throw the ball even harder. And sometimes you need to get some water! Know the difference between being hard on yourself and challenging yourself. Remember to ask yourself – who will I be if this film doesn’t go? What will remain consistent? Do your friends love you less if you don’t become famous? Keep it in perspective. I know, harder said then done, but it’s worth remembering again and again. It’s a daily reprieve.
ABOUT THE TEAM:
Brittany Ballard is the Manager of FILM FORWARD, a joint initiative between Sundance Institute and The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. She is also serving her eighth year as Director of Programming and Festival Producer for Urbanworld Film Festival, presented by BET (NYC). Before forming little plow films with Jamil Walker Smith, Brittany was Head of Acquisitions at Newmarket Films and Programmer at Santa Barbara International Film Festival and has consulted numerous distribution companies in acquisitions, including Skouras Films and Regent Entertainment. Brittany studied with Directing/Acting Coach Joan Scheckel and participated in USC’s prestigious Directing Intensive. Brittany graduated with Honors, Double Majoring in Black Studies and Comparative Literature with an Emphasis in Media Studies from University California Santa Barbara. Brittany produced the indie feature The American Dream and has co-written and will co-direct the screen adaptation of Ayelet Waldman’s acclaimed novel, Daughter’s Keeper for which she holds the option.
Jamil Walker Smith has been a professional actor since he was 6 years old, performing in local theater in his native Los Angeles, CA where he was nominated for 2 NAACP Theatre Awards and was selected as a California Arts Scholar. Jamil attended SUNY PURCHASE University where he majored in Theater Arts. Over the years, he has appeared in numerous plays and television series such as NYPD Blue, Cold Case, Touched By An Angel, Medium, and Bones. Jamil was a series regular on the Syfy Network’s Stargate Universe. In addition to his television work, Jamil wrote and directed the short film, The Son, which premiered at the Urbanworld Film Festival in New York City, where he met his Brittany Ballard, his partner in little plow films. Most recently, Jamil wrote, directed and funded The American Dream for which he won Best Director at both Cinequest Film Festival and Urbanworld Film Festival.