Josh Folan on the set of All God’s Creatures film
As a filmmaker, you are faced with a myriad of hurdles – questions, problems, difficulties, impossibilities – every single time you set out to tell a story you have bouncing around inside your melon. The differentiation between the stories that get told via moving image and sound and those that don’t are countless; they range from the obviously difficult impediment overcome to the easily overlooked mishap preventing ever even getting the ball rolling, but one thing I am certain every story told has going for it is a producer that doesn’t always play nice, adhere to the rules, or limit themselves and the project to the expectations of “the industry.”
catch 22: based on the unwritten story by seanie sugrue (catch22movie.com) is a narrative feature-length thriller I am the writer, director, and producer on, shooting in New York this coming October. The script was written and rewritten to the satisfaction of myself and my co-writer/co-producer Seanie Sugrue in four months, November of last year through February of this one, which is quick by my measure – I tend to do a great deal of staring at that goddamn blinking cursor when writing. The story, conceived by Seanie, developed by the two of us, and hammered out on the keyboard by me, was structured from square one to be a contained, low-budget story. Fifty-three of the tersely-written
script’s eighty-one pages take place in one modest internal Manhattan apartment location, six leading actors and an impressively limited handful of day player roles comprise the cast, and production and art needs were kept to an absolute minimum. While we could of course put additional dollars to worthwhile use, if the cupboard is at its barest we could get the thing done for $60k.
That is the gist of the project, and getting that far is no accomplishment – there are probably tens of thousands of people standing on that spot on the NYC filmmaking game board on any given day. Taking the next step is the true first of many hard ones to come, and that step, intensely generalized, is packaging and/or financing.
“You can’t get financing without talent.”
“Ok,” I reply to the hypothetical person stating this not-so-hypothetical filmmaking truth. “I’ll just go get some talent then. Be right back.”
Mr. Hypothetical bellows with laughter, turning me back around. “Whaddyou mean you’re gonna go get talent, you idiot? You need financing for that.”
I try to sort through that a moment. Nothing. “Isn’t that a catch twenty-two of sorts?” I finally mutter.
Why are we, as in the entire filmmaking industry, so willing to operate in such a bass-ackwards fashion? I come at this issue with plenty of experience on both sides of the coin – both as a producer and an actor. I fully understand how much anguish an actor must wade through in order to prove their worth as a performer and actually get to a place where a living can be made from a difficult and hyper-specialized profession, so I’m by no means implying an actor should do the work, the acting work, for free. But as a producer, I am always required to put an outlay of time, money, and risk into a project before there’s any chance of seeing anything back as compensation, fiscal or otherwise. Why should the producer/filmmaker exclusively shoulder the load of project development? As long as the performer is compensated properly, with some form of risk-warranting equity or profit participation, there should be no objection to attaching themselves to a project they believe in and helping to do some of the marketing (and that’s all fundraising is, really) required in order to procure the means necessary to vault the film into production…which is the catalyst that puts food on all our tables – producers, directors, script supervisors, PAs, and of course actors.
They were within reach because they’re friends of mine, a result of grinding away in New York and this industry for eight years now, but Phil Burke and Al Thompson were willing to attach themselves and help market our presale of the film via Kickstarter, both agreeing to it without even having read the script yet, which I told them made me feel like Spielberg. They will both have an equity stake in the film, and if all our hard work leads the project to profitability, they will make far more than they would have on a typical SAG-AFTRA Ultra Low Budget contract production. There are not many actors that would shy away from that heightened fiscal opportunity on a project, as long as they trust the filmmaker and the material. The counterargument of this is that I of course already knew these guys, and I didn’t have to plow through their representation in order to get their ear, which is partially accurate. But these guys didn’t just blindly sign their letters of intent and agree to help me approach financing the film in this unorthodox manner – I had to pitch and close them like any producer worth his salt need be able to do, and then I had to do it again once they inevitably passed me off to their lawyers, agents, and managers.
To further shoot that “how am I supposed to do that?” in the ass, I move to the attachment of Charmane Star to the project. When Seanie and I were discussing casting the role of “Girl” in the film, which in a character breakdown doesn’t look all that attractive – a stripper that is dead in the bathtub in the opening scene of the film – it occurred to us how difficult it would be to cast any “mainstream” actress in the role, particularly seeing as we would not have droves of cash to compensate her with. To our pitching advantage, despite that starting point for the role there actually is a great deal of substance to it through flashbacks. The role doesn’t have any simulated sex scenes, but there is a reasonable amount of nudity and an abundance of very dark subject matter that takes place when the character is on screen, which further complicates pitching the role to an actress wary of being exploited in a low budget film setting. It occurred to us that approaching a well-known adult film actress would be a great fit – she would likely be comfortable with all the role required and eager for the opportunity work on a mainstream film, and her following would likely be thrilled to support her doing so. It seemed a win for both parties, so we set our sights on a few actresses that physically fit the role and had substantial social media followings.
I had no personal ties to Charmane, and even finding who represented her and contact information for them was not a simple google away. I came across an article in the Hollywood Reporter about adult film agents, and worked my way to her rep from information therein. Then I had to convince said complete stranger’s agent, who surely fields some rather crazy shit given the industry, that the project and role are indeed a legitimate opportunity for his client to do some substantial mainstream film work that isn’t merely objectifying her. I did just that, and after seeing a taped audition that assured me of her suitability for the role, working out a compensation structure for the film itself (with equity involvement, of course!) and an outline of the specifics that would be expected of her before, during, and after the Kickstarter, we have attached an actress to the project that we are quite bullish on having the capability of mobilizing her following to hit our presale number all on her own. Opponents of the idea will argue there are a number of reasons an adult film star could be difficult to work with, but I can’t stress enough how great Charmane has been to work with so far on preparing for the Kickstarter, and she’s been leagues more professional than a great number of mainstream film actors I’ve worked with on projects in the past.
“So we’ve attached some talent, now it’s time to get the financing” I exclamatorily inform the Mr. Hypothetical from earlier in this MS Word document.
Why do filmmakers have to scrape and claw and beg together enough money in traditional financing – equity, foreign presales, etc. – from people, who are predominantly concerned with the financial retur on the project, to make a movie? As long as budgetary needs are kept to a rationale minimum, and there is an audience for the film that believes in and wants to listen to the human beings looking to tell a story, why don’t we just go sell the damn thing to those people and then do all we can to make the best movie we know how with THAT money? Cut out the middleman, simplify the process. You pay for a pizza before it’s delivered and/or you get to eat it. You do that because you trust that the pizza joint you’re calling (or were led into at 3 AM by alcohol, perhaps) knows what they are doing when it comes to making pizza, and you know that because you’ve had their pizza before.
I don’t see a difference between that pizza-scoring scenario and buying a movie. I understand many people likely do in the present film-consumption climate, so it is our job as producers to shift that paradigm and put people at ease about it, and in turn do them the service of corralling the resources necessary to create and provide those people the content they want to see from the filmmakers they want to see it from. The most obvious argument against this is the idea that filmmaking is such an imperfect, unpredictable art form that people shouldn’t have to pay for such an unknown product in advance. That is a pretty shoddy stance from where I sit, seeing as people already plunk their money down in advance of seeing the product in theaters, just with less lead time and with the comfort of promotional trailers (quite vaguely, in my opinion) alluding to what the product is and press/reviews angling to provide assurance the product is worth your time. So paying in advance is already something the audience does, which means that isn’t an impediment to the change I’m proposing, so what else?
The next rebuttal I think would be most common is the idea that the longer lead time and associated lessened familiarity with what is being paid for is more likely to result in a dissatisfaction with the end product received. For this I’ll go back to the “intoxicated in a pizza parlor at 3 AM” analogy; the pizza wizards surely have a pretty good grasp on what they’re doing, but in the unlikely event it’s not quite as amazing as you remember it being the last time you were hoovering two slices or more into your gullet, you don’t get to, nor do you really want to, demand your money back. They did their best, your belly is full, moving on. Why should it be acceptable to demand your money back for a film paid for after the product is provided and consumed? Not to knock the aforementioned pizza mages, but it seems a noble and difficult profession crafting feature films for a living, at least as much so as making pizzas, why should we be ok with being treated any less considerately by our consumers?
All this stated, I need tack on the caveat that I think our audiences would and should only pony up for a film at such an early stage if they are indeed familiar with and appreciative of the filmmakers’ existing work. That of course means that there IS a body of work in existence and available to be appreciated by the audience a filmmaker is asking to finance their latest project. In other words, not just anyone who can whip up a Kickstarter pitch video warrants this kind of support, you have to put in some work first and grind out that first film or two with little to no resources you basically made appear out of thin air, and prove your mettle before you can go asking for this kind of vote of confidence from your audience. You sure as hell wouldn’t pay a guy standing in a dark alley, dressed in cookie-cutter film school attire, that you’ve never bought a pizza from before for a slice, right? Well an audience probably doesn’t want to buy your pizza until after you have made a few, so you at least kind of know what the hell you’re doing.
If you consider yourself having paid the requisite dues, and have assembled a solid team to help you market your financing endeavors, you are ready to begin preselling your movie via crowdfunding. The most important thing to know, believe, understand, exude, and preach throughout doing so is that YOU ARE PRESELLING THE FILM TO YOUR AUDIENCE. It is simply being made available for preorder, YOU ARE NOT ASKING/BEGGING/HOPING/WANTING for something for nothing. You are preselling the audience the film so you have the means to make it for them. Every single piece of promotion and marketing you do for the campaign needs to have that message permeating throughout it, never once let the faintest hint of an implication that you are taking donations creep into your videos, posts, emails, talks, etc.
Every campaign should be designed from the ground up in a way that caters to the tone of the material and the filmmakers running the campaign, so you need to do just that. Don’t just mimic someone else’s campaign, because that will suck and most human beings can tell when something sucks. In no particular order, here are some bullet points for the catch 22 campaign that I thought worth sharing:
•I did a ton of research and hunted down campaigns ran by people I respected and admired, and tried to model the basic skeleton of my campaign from a hybrid conglomerate of the elements of those campaigns I liked. Reward ideas can be sourced in similar fashion.
• It’s a small touch, but the title being “catch 22” inspired me to make all the reward dollar amounts end in 22. Our total campaign goal is also $50,022.
• The film’s subject matter couldn’t be darker and more twisted, but that doesn’t mean the campaign need be. I try to make everything funny because I’m a cynical asshole, so I didn’t shy away from styling the story and reward text in that manner. The pitch video is also cut together with that mindset.
•I made “blast slides” for each day of the thirty-day campaign. Concept art, storyboards, stolen images from the internets, key art for the film, and whatever your little imagination can cook up. I informed my team members that every morning they would receive an email with one of these thirty slides attached – which were simply a piece of art associated with the project, formatted in a perfect square and of web-quality resolution and file size. They are to take that image and pump it through their Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts at least once a day, if not more, along with a little personalized blurb of text incentivizing their following to PREORDER the film and the shortened URL for the Kickstarter page.
•Create a video lookbook for the project to help convey what the hell it is you’re trying to create, the story you want to tell. What is a video lookbook, you ask?
•We hired an artist off of Craigslist for a very modest fee to create a few concept art sketches from the script, basically what amounts to storyboards. These double as blast slide material and fodder for the crowdfunding story content on the page itself. They also can have the bonus benefit of being actual storyboards for the shoot, if you really put some thought into them.
•Being that the entire campaign is based around the idea of PRESELLING THE FILM, that was what I would have liked the very first reward step to be. The digital download of the film is set for $22, for obvious marketing reasons. They will get an extended director’s cut that will never be made available other than to those who preorder the film via the campaign, and they will get it at least a week before the street release of the film – three counts of exclusivity in that, and exclusivity is key in these things. Why should they pay more, earlier, if they’re just going to get the same thing as everyone else? It’s called a reward for a reason, actually reward them. This reward level will be included with all reward levels that are higher up the ladder, because everyone should be getting the film. Why? Because that’s what we’re doing here, we’re PRESELLING THE FILM.
•It’s crowdfunding taboo to not offer a ten-dollar-or-less reward option for the people that want to pitch in, but are on a budget. To fulfill this need we are offering to send out a video production diary (periodically in pre and post, daily during the shoot) that will only be made available to the campaign contributors. They will also get wind of casting announcements before they hit the bloggersphere, a digital copy of the shooting script right before the film is released, and a free digital download of my book, Filmmaking, the Hard Way. What’s the thru line of these things? They cost us zero dollars to fulfill, yet are genuinely valued at more than what the badass advance purchaser is paying.
•“Badass advance purchaser” is what the campaign contributors are referred to throughout thecampaign page text, tying into the avoidance of the campaign being about donations.
•We hired a publicist – Lisa James (LMJ Public Relations), highly recommend – for a reasonable retainer for the month, negotiated with an understanding that money is tight right now but if things go properly with the campaign there will be money to be made down the line with the more traditional forms of publicity the film will need. Keep in mind here, publicity is not advertising. There is no guarantee you will have any return on your investment, but if you have some publicity hooks in your team and material, and properly research and target press and blog outlets that would be interested in those hooks, this could be money very well spent.
•I set up a shortened custom URL for the campaign page on tinyurl.com. Just go look at the thing. And PREORDER THE FILM.
And that’s that. Now go PRESELL YOUR DAMN MOVIE.
Josh Folan is a producer, writer, director and actor with professional credits dating back to 2005, prior to which he studied finance at The Ohio State University. His first proprietary feature-length film venture, the romantic thriller All God’s Creatures, was released through Osiris Entertainment in May of 2012.
Folan wrote, produced and starred in the film, which premiered at the 2011 Hoboken International Film Festival where it was nominated for best screenplay and best actress (Jessica Kaye). Slacker buddy comedy What Would Bear Do? is his second feature. Folan wrote, produced and starred in it as well, in addition to taking on directorial duties for the first time. The low-budget indie how-to case study Filmmaking, the Hard Way is his first crack at writing a book, and you can follow him (@joshfolan) and his production company, NYEH Entertainment @nyehentertains and NYEH Entertainment , on twitter and facebook if you’d like to keep up with his shit. and his third feature, a dark thriller titled catch 22: based on the unwritten story by Seanie Sugrue, is currently available for order @ Catch22movie.com.
Check out other Film Courage articles by Josh Folan, including: