There’s a reason I don’t like being introduced as someone with a background in film finance. Producing my own work is plenty stressful, and if there is an amount of money big enough that getting paid for putting the same effort into someone else’s production would actually make my life easier…
Well, I don’t know what that number would be. Needless to say, it would be impractically expensive. Conversations with other filmmakers on the subject of film finance almost always begin with them telling me “All we really need is…” and end with a lecture from me on the demands I place on myself and my films as a producer. Those demands are informed by ten years of experience as an independent film executive, and over twenty years of building audiences on stage and screen as a storyteller. Part of why I produce my own films is that I can’t find anyone else who will do all the work I know needs to be done. When other filmmakers are looking for someone to jump in and handle “the business stuff,” in my experience, it means that most or all of that work is still undone.
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The idea that a concept can be sold at all is the apex of that “All we really need is…” kind of thinking. If you’ve got a really great concept, what you REALLY really need is a really great movie, a lot of movie theaters, and a big audience. There’s a misconception when it comes to creative trades that the effort it takes to have an idea has a value roughly equal to the effort it takes to execute it. In fact, the notion that ideas are something people will place value on at all is questionable. Sometimes, someone in my creative community will start talking about a project and people will get excited about it. At the same time, it’s that person’s creative track record that is actually causing the interest. Folks aren’t so much interested in seeing that idea unfold, as they are in seeing what that particular individual will do with it. In the end, it’s the work they want to see.
Name any great movie, and I’ll name twenty great directors off the top of my head who never could have made the concept work. It’s not the concept, it’s the creators.
Being a film creator is not a complex process, even if it is a difficult and exhausting one. There is a structure to it, and it’s something anyone with the craft and the will can do. Every motion picture has essentially four phases of execution, and every phase you successfully complete raises the value of your concept and decreases the risk for others.
Development comes first, and includes the process of writing the screenplay, the attachment of any cast and crew essential to the creative or financial foundation of your movie, and the financing itself. These days, development tends to be the longest phase of production. In independent cinema, spending years in development is commonplace.
Once your movie is financed, you begin pre-production. This is when you design and build the sets, sign for locations, organize your shooting schedule in terms of daily shot lists and the overall, location-by-location workflow of the shoot as a whole, hire everyone essential to the completion of the shoot and so forth. Film production has been likened to modern warfare, and pre-production is when you plan the invasion right down to the last roll of tape. Generally, pre-production takes between 2-5 months.
Then, you shoot. Movies can take anywhere from two weeks to two months for production.
Once the movie is shot, you need a few months for post-production. This process begins with editing, includes any visual effects and sound effects that need to be included as well as the score and any music editing that needs to be done, and concludes with the final color and sound mixes.
Actually making that movie successful just about doubles your workload. Finding the means to distribute the film, finding the audience to distribute it to, and bringing the two together is a full time job that will probably take years of your life.
If this process seems demanding, it stands to reason that the folks who undertake it are probably highly motivated. Anyone willing to actually make a movie probably already has concepts they feel very strongly will, in their hands, make for great entertainment. Writers learn to write because they have stories to tell. Directors learn to direct for the same reason.
What about producers?
Producers are people who employ writers and directors to pursue a third-party plan for success in the film industry, but having a great concept for a movie does not mean you need a producer. It means you ARE a producer. Yes, producing films requires a set of skills as long as any grocery list. Yes, producing movies takes years of your life. Yes, the work itself is as agonizingly frustrating as any you can find. This is a career, and not a job.
Listen to Tennyson E. Stead tell his ‘Arriving in L.A. story here.’
At the same time, this is your passion project. You are the creator, right? If your concept does not inspire you to do this work, then there is very little likelihood that a total stranger will feel any differently.
Here’s the good news. Everyone who knows how to produce feature films learned it on the fly, out of necessity. There is no template for this work, and your road to success will be entirely determined by the resources you already have and the demands of the project. People from all industries, with all kinds of different approaches to business wind up producing films, and the only thing that really unites their business practice is that they’ve all felt the need to bring a concept to realization as a film for audiences.
Finding a way to build your creative team is part of this process, and you’re probably going to need to pay at least some of them upfront. Development is unlikely to be free of charge, if you want your film to be of high quality. You have to spend money to make money. Writers, remember, are not looking for the opportunity to write something. They have things to write. If they are working for free, they will be working on their own passion projects – not yours.
Still, the question of financing is only a challenge to be addressed and not an absolute barrier to entry. Like with any business, you need to start thinking of your concept as a collection of risks that can be exploited for reward. What I’m telling you in this article is that you need to take those risks yourself. Don’t expect anyone else to do it.
All your movie really needs… is you.
If you’d like to ask questions, pose “what-if’s,” rebuke me with experience or hearsay, or just flirt from the safe distance of your personal computer, you can always find me at Tennysonestead.com. To find out more about me, my ensemble, and my stories, we welcome you to our online community at 8sidedforum.com – and please, please support our upcoming feature, Quantum Theory. Quantum Theory is the story of two brilliant, snarky women of science who develop a prototype that gives them the power to change reality itself… until it’s snatched from under them by a defense contractor with virtually limitless resources. Stealing it back means winning a shell game of changing realities against a foe who does not lose. The future of our world depends upon their success! You can find out more at here, and at Quantummovie.com.
Tennyson E. Stead is a writer, director, and producer of film and transmedia. In his childhood, he spent all his time building cardboard spaceships and rescuing his sister in them. These days he does basically the same thing.
For any production to realize its full creative and financial potential, every creative element must reflect the overall goals of the project. Every great collaborative work was produced by a team of talented people, united by a common intent.
8 Sided Films and the 8 Sided Forum represent our collective stewardship over the stories born from intent too multifaceted, specific, or unique for studio production, and our commitment to honoring that intent as the foundation for a more personal relationship with our audience.
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Check out Tennyson’s prior Film Courage articles: