Lots of Advice (for What It’s Worth)

The British director Michael Powell once told me his notion of giving advice when he was working as a consultant to Francis Ford Coppola and Zoetrope Studios. Powell described the process quite simply: “I tell them what I think they should be doing, they pay me a lot of money and then completely ignore everything I said.”

Yes, Michael Powell inspired me to become a film consultant. I am still working on that lots of money part, but I love the rest of the arrangement. Just hand out advice and move on.Unfortunately, it is an extremely competitive field. Heck, every five minutes a new blog post appears somewhere online about the top five (or ten, or whatever) things filmmakers need to do when crowdfunding. All any indie filmmaker needs to do is spend about the next six months on Google and get hot tips on everything from product placement to mysterious Arab producers to pointers on social media, and everything in between.

It’s a wonder more movies are not being made with all of the free advice out there!

OK, my first tip about all of the free advice – some of it is sort of OK and some of it is sort of not so OK. A cinematographer once described his work to me in this manner and I felt it pretty much summed up almost everything.

Take for example all of the tips on crowdfunding. Most of these tips are sort of OK. The whole concept of crowdfunding is pretty nebulous so almost any advice might be helpful. Especially since successful crowdfunding depends heavily upon building a community  behind your project. This involves finding and engaging the people and groups that might be innately interested in your film. A good example is the recent Veronica Mars crowdfunding effort. The TV series already had a strong and enthusiastic audience. Many web sites were devoted to it.  It had a large, pre-established fan base. In many respects, half of the job of community building was already done.

Which means the Veronica Mars model isn’t very useful to most indie filmmakers except as a general idea. Most people have to start from scratch. Build web sites, develop Facebook pages and Twitter accounts and all of that online hustle as you seek out other people connected to key aspects of the film you want to make. In other words, network like crazy in order to build a presence.

This leads us to the other ironic aspect of the process. Branding. Yes, you have to build a brand. Your process doesn’t have to resemble an episode of Mad Men, though the mindset is not necessarily that different (minus the drinks, the smokes, and the oinker sexuality). But if you are going to crowdfund, you will have to market yourself.

Many artists have been masters of branding. Take for example Andy Warhol. Or Salvador Dali. In a sense, Rembrandt was branding when he shifted from his full name and began to simply sign his paintings, Rembrandt. So don’t worry about the commercialism. Branding has a long artistic tradition.

I’m not saying that you have to do a Warhol. For one thing, neither your family nor friends may tolerate the life style. But you will want to find a way of branding your project. What is unique about your movie?  What is that special something that you can quickly sum up in a single sentence?  Yes, you are looking for the spin. Whatever is your spin, it will become the linchpin to your crowdfunding campaign.

Crowdfunding isn’t the only way to get the money needed for your indie movie. According to a recent piece in Variety, you just need some major stars who want a juicy role in lieu of a fat paycheck. I noticed that some folks find this advice to be just swell, though I am more tempted to quote Tommy Flanagan, the pathological liar: “Yeah, that’s the ticket!”

It obviously doesn’t hurt if you can get a major name to do your little indie film for next to nothing. But I can’t help noticing in the examples used by Variety that the filmmaker was either a close personal friend of the star or a tight friend of a friend of the star. So I guess if you know somebody important, use it. If you don’t…you may be SOL.

Which gets back to what I said at the beginning. There is a lot of advice out there. Some is good and some is, at best, sort of so-so. Depending upon your situation, some of the advice may be a good fit. Other bits of advice will be either useless or utterly destructive. You have to decide for yourself. Yep, I’m starting to sound like your father. You have to listen carefully, pay close attention, and then make the best decision you can. Depending upon your belief system, a few quick prayers and a couple of lit candles might not hurt.

And if you are looking for solid advice based upon extensive experience, you might want to check out the 10 Lessons on Filmmaking From Director Ken Loach. He makes good points, many of which are valid no matter what your budget might be.