LEGALLY SPEAKING, IT DEPENDS: Short Film Report

Christopher Schiller is a NY transactional entertainment attorney who counts many independent filmmakers and writers among his diverse client base. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisschiller.

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As this goes to press, I should be on set in the midst of producing my short film. (The use of the word “should” is key in that sentence.) But the experience of the journey through the pre-production phase might be of benefit to those of you thinking about participating in a similar activity so I thought I’d jot down thoughts I have had while going about my frantic days. Hope they prove insightful (or at least serve as evidence for my commitment hearings.)

The best battle plans never survive first contact with the enemy

Just like the original, verbose quote of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder that evolved through time and others’ mouths into the headline above, the initial plans for a film production, regardless of how thoroughly prepared and meticulously thought out, will never be executed as imagined. You should always have a plan B, and a plan C, ready before you set out. By the time you reach the day the camera rolls, you’re lucky if you’re only on plan F. A producer must be able to be fluid as events unfold, allow changes as they are necessitated, and be able to adjust the remaining elements to fit the new lay of the land.

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Pre-production for short film in progress

For instance, I knew I wanted a particular look for the unique elements of my short film. The lighting plan and shooting approach would need be handled just so. It was paramount that I get a cinematographer on board early that understood what I was aiming for and found it intriguing. It wasn’t hard to find very good DPs that got what I wanted to express and were not only enthusiastic about trying it, but excited to see the results. I had a short list of capable, potential candidates, and started talking to those most likely to be available and get my take. After I interviewed the third professional whose work I greatly admired and who loved the concepts but couldn’t figure out how to work the already set shooting schedule into their busy calendars, I knew I had to resort to a different approach.

I have served as cinematographer many a time before and know the planning and execution necessary to do the job before getting on set. I would have a trusted camera operator on the shoot dates but handling the bulk of the look of film myself meant that I would have less time on set to concentrate on guiding the actors and working on the frilly bits I was toying with including. I had to revise my plans for how I was going to approach the rehearsals I’d scheduled and how much more pre-planning I would have to do before getting to the set. Let’s call this Plan B.

With deference to Cindi Lauper’s hit, money changes nothing

Some cash-strapped filmmakers approach their productions thinking, “If only I had enough money, I wouldn’t have all the problems I’m facing right now.” Sorry, Bub, it just doesn’t pan out that way. No matter the budget level, money can’t solve every problem. Even multi-million dollar productions have money issues. All volunteer productions have money issues. Throwing money at a problem inevitably does nothing to fix said problem.

I have also participated in my share of volunteer productions. The producers rely and depend on the generosity and largesse of their cast and crew. Every participant on such a production needs to evaluate for themselves whether the effort will be worth it to them personally after all is said and done. It is often looked upon as “doing favors” with a sense of a return on that investment someday but there is more to the analysis than that.

There are filmmakers that manage to get their productions done with no money. What often happens is they use up their welcome. Even with associates who want to see the project succeed, there is only so far you can stretch a favor. You still have to be responsible and professional. Legally, an employee is an employee whether they’re getting paid or not. Volunteering doesn’t alleviate those management responsibilities. Keeping people happy and feeling like the endeavor is worthwhile is key in every situation.

Knowing how I felt working for free, I vowed that this production would pay every person who works on it. I applied for a SAG/AFTRA Ultra Low Budget contract for the cast, and determined that I would pay the crew on a similar scale for their work. Did this open the floodgates of people clambering to work on my production? Not in the least.

The fact is that my having worked in the past on all those other people’s productions and consulting on quite a few more built up my reputation. Time and time again as I discussed my project with prospective cast or crew I would come to what I considered the very important point, that I was paying everyone. And time and time again, that didn’t matter much to them. The more important factors for their considerations were the intrigue of the project and wanting to work on a project with me. I’m sure the money held some sway in the final calculations and I certainly felt better about being able to offer it, but it wasn’t the end-all be-all in the decision making.

And here’s the takeaway: write an intriguing script and be someone that people want to work with and you’ll be surprised at how much potential opens up for you, regardless of how much the budget actually allows. Why else do you hear stories of multi-million dollar asking prices for star actors being waived down to SAG minimums to be able to play a role of a lifetime? Money isn’t everything. If the project is good enough – really good enough – money is nearly irrelevant.

It is amazing how much easier it is to produce a one line change

As writers, we strive to feel like a script is perfect. Especially once you advance a project to where someone wants to join you in making a film of your work. But be open to production-oriented changes. It can make a huge difference in the scheduling or budgeting of a production and, when done right, may even be a better movie. In my case, I was always going to be the producer. Knowing this from first draft I tried to keep the script lean. I knew the value of keeping scenes limited to few locations. I thought everything would be producible, and I never felt I compromised the quality of story on the pages. Breaking the script for scheduling though, I realized I had written a pivotal moment in a dinner scene. The scene worked splendidly on the page. The actors were seated throughout, so easy to shoot. One problem. Dinner requires a large amount of difficult to manage props – namely food. The scene worked well, so I resigned myself to buying and managing all the duplicate food stuffs that would have to survive on a set for the hours of shooting the scene. Until I thought to change a single line of the script. That one line changed it to an after-dinner scene. A couple of wine glasses and jug of grape juice and it’s much easier (and cheaper) to produce. And the impact of the scene remains.

Location, location, location – No? Then how about this location?

Writers create entire worlds from scratch. Movies have to be shot in this one. Finding a location that matches the imagined one can be a tricky process. Unless a plot point relies on a specific location reference (e.g. the Empire State Building in Sleepless in Seattle) location scouting has to find places that not only look the part but are available, amenable to, and suitable for shooting. And don’t forget about sound when considering locations. I recall horror stories about the perfect locations for some movies having a three minute window to get the scenes done before the military jets would roar overhead from the armed forces base nearby.

Finding the perfect location only starts the process. You need to make sure you get the right permissions, in writing, from the right people and make sure that everyone – neighbors included – are fully aware of what they’re getting themselves into. As anyone who has tried to shoot in New York City can attest, even a properly permitted and secured film shoot can upset those nearby who’s day was interrupted by an unexpected crowd or traffic congestion. And don’t be beneath considering bribing people to hold off mowing their lawns while the cameras are rolling. A producer’s got to do what a producer’s got to do.

Always make time for the paperwork

Opening a new business for production is advisable, but, make sure you allow enough time for the arcania to fall into place for the company needs as you also work on the pre-production. And paper over everything. Even if you don’t think you need it, a written agreement will ensure that you don’t. Think about the long run. That handshake trust agreement you obtained isn’t something that a distributor can take to the bank – literally. Getting all your agreements in place as you go, smooths the way for the next phase of your exploitation of the film. You want to appear professional, right?

Here’s where the “should” comes in

Even the best planned projects can reach a point of decision that we all try to avoid. Should we continue or stop? In my case, I rolled with each change and switched to alternatives along the way. As my shoot dates approached my flexibility constricted, options were no longer viable, but, I still had to make adjustments to events as they happen.

Here I sit, a little less than two weeks from the scheduled first day of shooting and I realize that I’ve run out of options to adjust to the last changes afoot. I have had to make the hard decision to postpone the shoot until a later date. By the time you read this I will have hopefully regained footing and be on the path to a new shoot date with renewed vigor and the proper elements in place to get to the finish line.

I will keep you posted. Because as you know, even when I’m not legally speaking… it depends.

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For invaluable advice on short film ideas, download the 1st chapter of Roberta Marie Monroe’s book How Not to Make a Short Film! and create inspiring short films today.


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