Showing posts with label casting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label casting. Show all posts

PRODUCTION JOURNAL: When you form a production company, FOCUS on what matters!

A decade or so ago, two of my filmmaker friends and I formed a production company.

The goal of the company was to produce two feature films back-to-back; one written and directed by one of my two friends, and one written and directed by me. The third friend had a line on $10,000 seed money and wanted to produce his first feature, after producing several short films and being involved in the Sundance community for several years.

We kept it simple, at first. We met at a Denny’s and set up an office in my 2-bedroom Los Feliz apartment with the main goal of getting name talent attached to our two scripts.

We decided to work on two films at once to put us ahead of the game in two key ways:

1) If we were known to be setting up a slate of films and a production company, rather than just setting up a single film, we'd be able to differentiate our company and our films from the scores of other filmmakers out there hoofing it to raise money for their single film.

and 2) two films would allow us to manage risk of loss and leverage our positions with potential cast and investors. That is, if we were trying to get two films going, and if name talent jumped aboard at least one of them, we'd be automatically in a good position to make the second one, as we would have gained significant "heat" by attaching a name actor to one of our films.

But despite our grand strategy, and despite being able to ultimately attach several smaller name actors to one of our films, we wasted a lot of time and energy doing a lot of pointless, business-y things that we thought were important at the time, but turned out not only to be not important, but incredibly wasteful of our precious time and scant financial and human resources.

A typical day at the Los Feliz office was:  We'd meet, agree on what we were pursuing for the day, as far as a single "action item," such as "Contact Steve Zahn's manager and see if you can get the script to him," then I would track down Steve Zahn's contact information, and then our lead phone guy, Roger, would be the guy who picked up the phone and called him.

That's pretty simplified, but you get the idea.

But another key ingredient in the mix:  we committed to the idea that if we didn't get name actors and raise the budgets within 3 months, we'd shoot both the films ourselves with skeleton crews and cheaper gear, splitting the rental costs and other costs between
the two films, getting the most bang for our buck.

And by giving ourselves that ultimatum, we had to pair the name-talent outreach campaign with a simultaneous "we're shooting in X months" preproduction campaign.  Which meant we had to start finding locations, securing rental deals for cameras and gear, casting actors, and everything else that goes into preproduction on a film. Two films, actually.

And this is where it began to go wrong.

Because we were overloaded, we brought in a couple of interns to help us with that day-to-day grunt work.

And it wasn't apparent at first, but because we'd brought in those two interns, who weren't exactly strangers, but weren't exactly close pals, we all felt like we had to "step up" and act more like a real business—a real production company.

Which meant whenever there was any downtime, we had to come up with busy work.

And soon, that busy work became the end-all-be-all of what we were doing.

We started having meetings to keep us on track and set goals, and because we wanted to make the interns feel like part of the team, we brought them into the meetings.

But even worse, in those meetings, we started talking about things like business card design and who should run the video camera at auditions.

As we descended into this busy-work death spiral, we said to ourselves "This is too much for just us three producers. We need to bring in someone to help with this stuff."

So we added a fourth producer to our production company.

Despite it all, this fourth producer was a valuable asset to have on the team.  He had a knack for quickly building his social circle, so we knew he'd be able to help bring aboard people that could help.  But the only problem was that, now, the topic had shifted even further away from the "get a name actor on our film" to "getting our production company name out there" and "designing our logo."

And then it got worse.

Because then we dived down a two-month rabbit hole as we planned a big launch party for our production company, deciding it was time to make a splash and let the film industry know we meant business.


Instead of calling actors and preparing for the possibility of shooting the 2 films with a microbudget, we were now worried about arbitrary things like:

-       How can we merge our personal emails lists onto one main Brooklyn Reptyle email list so we can invite everybody to the Launch Party? Should we use Excel? Will our internet provider allow us to send all these emails at once?

-       What should go on each of our business cards? ("Should I be 'Creative Director' or does that sound too pompous?" "How about I'm 'Executive VP In Charge of Production' and you're 'Executive VP In Charge of Finance'?")

-       What's the MP3 playlist for the party? Should it be contemporary? Classic? A mixture?

-       Should the party be invite-only?  Or open to friends of invitees?

The net result:  By July, we had ended up being miles away from that three-person "name-talent strike force" we started out as in February.

And because we had so many sundry mindless little "busywork" things to focus on, nobody was able to focus on anything.

And as a result, morale plummeted.

And when morale plummeted, the interns left. 

And when the interns left, we were overwhelmed with so much busy work left undone, we panicked and brought in a paid office assistant, despite the fact that none of us had any money.

She lasted a month and had to quit.

And it was at this point we lost Roger, our producer who was the main liaison to the name-talent we were pursuing, when he took on a film festival job.

So the name talent campaign was effectively over, and our two-film production slate was teetering on the edge of failure.  It was at that point we hit rock bottom, and had to "sober up," so to speak.

After a few weeks of reorganization and refocusing, we got back on the horse, deciding to make one of the films, Boppin' At The Glue Factory, come hell or high water, and name talent be damned.

We stuck to the basics and scrounged up a microbudget, threw together a cast and crew, and started rolling cameras within a few months.  Three basic business actions we took that led to success:

1) We divided up the work.  Put simply, everybody's jobs were overlapping.  As a result, a team member would do a lot of work (e.g. getting a printer script to a certain manager, or pricing out a location).  Once we divided up the work, we could assign specific tasks to each other, and the list of tasks would keep us on track and accountable to our teammates.

2) We stopped having daily meetings and moved to a weekly meeting.  In addition, the structure of the weekly meeting became tighter and more focused.  We set an agenda for each time we got together, and attacked each bullet point individually, minimizing chat and distraction, and stayed focused on end results.  We checked to see if each teammate achieved the tasks assigned to them on their task list. We brainstormed new ideas and new tasks within a set period of time, and if we went over, that was it.  We called the meetings "Tactical Strike Meetings," instead of the long, drawn-out "campaign" meetings we'd grown accustomed to, and the new urgency really helped. 

In one meeting, for example, we did a timed "angel investor brainstorm," where we each had two minutes to throw out the names of as many connected, or wealthy, or otherwise viable potential angel investors as we could, and the person who threw out the least amount of names had to buy lunch.

As a result of that meeting, we stumbled upon one name that we hadn't thought of before. That person ended up becoming our first angel investor, and "made it safe" for other investors to come aboard later, because they perceived our film as a viable, project due to that first investor.  It was now more than just a script and an idea. It was a moving train.

3) We got real about our chances of landing name talent, and refocused on actors that weren't necessarily on the "A List," but had large enough names to get people interested in the film, and to set our film apart from others. This refocusing let us see our casting in a new light, which opened the door for our first few great actors, such as Rance Howard, Conrad Roberts, and Mews Small, who not only fit the parts, but actually caused us to realize how small our thinking was when it came to each of the characters they played, as each of them brought in a whole new dimension of life and magic to their parts, which expanded our film's potential and entertainment value in a huge way. 

That film, Boppin' At The Glue Factory, is actually still making money on Amazon right now.

And, thankfully, our business cards are lost to history.

IMDB page of Boppin at the Glue Factory

CASE STUDY: How Script Coverage Helped Get Name Talent Aboard My Feature Film

Today's case study is written by Brian O'Malley from on how the use of script reading services like his can make your script more enticing and intriguing to A-list actors. As we all know, one of the best strategies for getting your film financed and made is having top-notch name brands starring and guest-starring in your film. Hope you enjoy. ~~ Danny

Image credit: Rafael Leonardo Re via Flickr Creative Commons

Script coverage. We all know that for agents and producers, it's a great tool because a script reader can wade through a pile of scripts and find the good writers and good stories, then write up a brief script coverage and let her boss know, in a page or two, what's worth reading, and what's not.

And it's a great tool for screenwriters as well. A well-written script coverage can help pinpoint how to improve story and character, plot and conflict, and so many other categories, making it a lot easier for the screenwriter to know where to begin fixing things on the next draft.

But did you have any idea that script coverage is also a great tool for independent filmmakers, and can actually help get projects off the ground?

It was for me.

In the mid-2000's, my production company and I were looking to get a feature film produced for one of my screenplays, Frampton Damper — a dark romantic comedy about a sick man and a nurse.  Raising money for the film was a tough climb, but we were able to get assurances from one large production company, with a deal at a major studio, that they'd be happy to bankroll our $1.2 million-budgeted film if we were able to attach two A-list stars.  We suggested Maggie Gyllenhaal and John Goodman. They said "If you guys get those two aboard, we're in."

But our little film wasn't quite a "package" that would appeal to agents yet, so going direct to the agents of those two A-listers, we knew we'd need two key things:

(a) money in the bank to be able to make a serious offer of employment for both of them, and

(b) an amazing screenplay that was, without question, a fun read and a clear, shootable, realistic blueprint for a great independent romantic comedy that would appeal to both of our targeted actors.

The first thing, the money in the bank, was being taken care of by one of our initial producers, who agreed to fund our production company to the point of being able to make a serious offer to the name talent.  The money he was to put in, however, was to scale up with the size of the talent we were to procure. That is, he made most of his funding contingent on who we got to agree to star in the film.

The second thing was the script. And that was crucial. We had one shot with each of these actors. If they didn't like the screenplay, they wouldn't agree to do the film. Or, more accurately, if the agent or agent's assistant who read the screenplay before giving it to the actor didn't like the film, we'd be hosed.

So the screenplay had to be tight. But being the writer, I felt I was too close to it to be able to critique it and improve it.

That's where the script coverage came in.

I started a script coverage service in 1999, which turned into the script company I run now called Screenplay Readers. So when we needed to make our script as strong as possible before sending it out to those name actors' agents, we ran it by several of my teammates at Screenplay Readers.

We didn't tell them it was me who wrote the script, because we didn't want to bias their read, so I used a fake name on the title page. 

When the coverage came in from the reader, they'd spotted several key places where the script could be stronger, and made suggestions on how to do so.  And you can bet me and my producers took full advantage of the script notes to improve the script.

Not only did the readers’ script feedback help me improve the script thematically and structurally, it actually pointed out several glaring typos and errors that somehow made it past me. Had we sent that script in to the name actors we were trying to attach to the film, those errors could’ve made my producer team and myself look like rank amateurs, which is not the vibe you’re trying to transmit when you’re trying to secure name talent aboard your tiny indie project.

So I rewrote the script based on the script coverage, and I fixed all the errors. But by then the producers and I decided to try a different strategy.  Instead of sending the script directly to the A-list talent, Gyllenhaal and Goodman, we felt we should maybe give the project more of a “moving train” feel to it by seeing if we couldn’t attach some great actors with less star power, but whom those two actors had worked with previously, or who they had great respect for.

To that end, we contacted Swoosie Kurtz's agent and asked if we could send the script.  After a bit of back and forth moving our schedule around for the possibility of Ms. Kurtz, condensing days she'd be shooting, etc., they asked to read the script.

But before we sent it in, we decided to get another round of script coverage from my readers. This time, we asked for focus to be placed on the character that Ms. Kurtz would be playing.

The coverage that came in a few days later commented on some aspects of the screenplay that the previous readers hadn't, but offered a few other specific notes that really helped boost the character we requested the script reader focus on, as well as script notes on a few of the other characters that had not been commented on in the previous coverage.

The result was that we now had an even stronger screenplay.  We sent it to Ms. Kurtz, made the cash offer, and she was officially aboard.

Her joining made it a lot easier for us to then approach Ed Begley Jr.'s people, because they respected and admired Ms.  Kurtz's work.  After a few scheduling tweaks and backs-and-forth with the deal memo, Begley was aboard.

With those two name actors aboard, we felt confident we could now get either Goodman or Gyllenhaal aboard.  We had a great script, thanks to copious rounds of notes that included free writers group feedback and paid script coverage from my script coverage service, and we had money in the bank ready to make solid offers.

But then both John and Maggie were suddenly on other pictures, and despite our attempts to reschedule our picture around them, those two were suddenly unavailable and out of reach for the next year or so.

We were a bit distraught, having done all this legwork and tweaking the script around the script coverage we received, and finagling with the producer putting up the funds to make the offers.  But we were soon back in business again.

Natasha Lyonne at the time was in between films and had happened on my screenplay because we'd sent it to her agent some months earlier, hoping to get her to play the part of what was essentially an offbeat, co-lead character. The part was virtually written around her: tough, but lovable, and hopelessly weird.  She's good at those roles.

Long story short, we met with her and she said she loved the script and would love to do the film. In a subsequent meeting, she specifically mentioned she connected with the character’s flaws and at least one particular plot twist that was incorporated into the script after we received the first round of script coverage.

With Lyonne aboard, we were able to secure almost full funding from a new production company we'd been courting.  We just needed one more name to make the film a full "go."

That "go," sadly, never materialized, however, as the LLC dissolved suddenly for a variety of financial and personal reasons. The film we were making, with all these great name actors, became hopelessly mired, and we eventually lost our name talent.  The film never got made.

But the net takeaway was that without that script coverage, I'm not sure we would have had any of the success in securing any of those actors on our film. 

Script coverage can be a boon, yes. Script coverage can help get name talent aboard, and therefore help make financing a lot easier, yes.  But is it the only way to get script feedback?  No.  It was just the fastest and most efficient for us.

Sure, I could've sat in a writers group and waited for my turn to do a table read and could've gotten some great free feedback from the writers in the group.  Sure, I could've, and did, receive free feedback from fellow filmmakers and friends, but it wasn't always as concise or critical as I felt it needed to be.

The bottom line is that script coverage services are there to be used, and not just in a creative capacity, but in a strategic, fundraising capacity. If you can make your script better, or shore it up in key areas, or increase its readability in any way, or help find glitches that could mark you as an amateur, it makes no sense to not use one to help your film get off the ground.

That being said, as the owner of a script coverage service with almost 20 years of experience, I'm biased. So I'll tell you this: script coverage can help, a lot. But do your research and find the script readers or script coverage company that fits you best. They're not all the same.

Script coverage might not the end-all-be-all answer for your film getting off the ground, but it sure helped me get the name talent I needed for mine.

PRODUCTION TIPS: 7 Tips to Choosing A Top-Notch Cast... Even After Only 1 Audition

Picking your cast is one of the most important decisions you will make as a filmmaker, probably only second to the script you choose to shoot.  Not taking anything away from the beautiful shots, inspired soundtrack and rhythmic edits but it will be the cast embodying the characters and saying their lines that will be what audiences remember most about your movie.  People may say an actor was "born to play that role" and refuse to believe that anyone else could've played that role but actors don't just show up at the filmmaker's doorstep as if delivered by the stork readymade to act as the character.  A director needs to make that vital decision.  

A big budget director has the luxury of a team and a casting agency to help him with the decision.  Furthermore, he has access to some of the top actors in the biz vying to be in the film.  An indie director rarely has those advantages.  Because the low budget director does not have the money to cast with the help of a good casting director, attract the best talent or run multiple auditions, she needs to be able to choose the best person in a short amount of time.  And even if she can afford a good casting director, she should still have her own personal but objective criteria for why she prefers one actor over another.

The following is a list of things your actor will do or possess that will help you decide, even with only one audition, if the actor is the best man or woman for the role. 
  1. COME PREPARED. They arrive on-time or even early, bring their own copy of the script, provide you with their resume and headshots, show interest in the role and discuss it with you and are ready to do their monologue or act your scenes out with the right amount of energy.  Basically, they come like a professional and treat it like the job interview it is.
  2. HAVE THE LOOK.  Film is a visual medium so having "the look" is supremely important because the physical features of a person can express the essence of a character in an immediate non-verbal way.  And if you find a person with the "perfect" voice and mannerisms for your character then you know you've struck gold.  Of course, you should not ONLY cast for "the look." There are other factors to consider.  And don't forget that makeup, costumes and props will help that actor "look" like the character, too.  But be sure to take into consideration the actors who invest the time and effort to change their look for an audition to embody more closely the character in the script.
  3. LISTEN TO YOUR DIRECTIONS.  You need to know from day 1 that your cast will listen to you.   Some actors are very uptight about their training and experience especially if they are dealing with a novice director and this could lead to uncomfortable and energy-sapping friction on the set.  Avoid this by testing your actor during auditions with suggestions to play the role multiple times in multiple ways.  Even if you like the first thing they did, have them do it again, differently, if only to see whether they will listen and give you what you want or argue with you.
  4. QUESTION YOUR DIRECTIONS.  You are hiring the actor to help you mold your vision and bring a character to life.  They are not simply CGI models that you command to do this and say that.  Although you want them to listen to your directions, you also want them to contribute their opinions and ideas.  They should question some of the things you want to do with your character and the script in a thoughtful manner as options for you to consider.  During the audition, provide the actor multiple opportunities to ask you questions about the role, the script and your vision.  Ideally, a good actor will come prepared with questions.
  5. LISTEN ACTIVELY.  A good actor will always be "on" during takes even if she is not saying anything and another actor is talking.  The most compelling actors are the ones who you can't take your eyes off of, who draw you in with the way they stand or light a match or walk away.  The reason they can do this is because during takes they are in a zone, actively listening to what is going on around them as if they were an antenna.  During auditions, have your prospective actor act with another person and watch how they "listen."  Avoid actors who only listen for the end of a line to jump in and emote; that ping pong style of acting sucks (unless you are going for a sketch or parody effect... then by all mean).
  6. SHOW SIGNS OF INTELLIGENCE.  The ideal actor for a role only has to be smart enough to bring your character to life in a believable way.  And that's not an easy thing to do.  Now, of course, she doesn't have to be a physicist or a lawyer or a philosopher (although she might be) but she should show signs of an active intelligence making sense of the character, the script and life, in general.  Do they reference historical periods and events when discussing the biography of a character?  Do they surprise you with the literary or cinematic conventions they uncover in your script?  Are they great storytellers who engage you even when they are just telling you what they had for breakfast? 
  7. HAVE A FOLLOWING.  Although one might question whether an A-list actor deserves to make the money he makes, there is no doubt that the A-lister at least gets audiences interested in the movie.  That initial interest might eventually lead to eyes on the screen.  That's the gamble studios and filmmakers make when they hire A-listers and it still seems like a viable plan.  An indie filmmaker still has options of getting people interested by casting properly.  The explosion of social media networks has created an underworld of "celebrities" within them.   These celebrities have influence within their network and, as time goes on, people are starting to realize the monetary value of these celebrities who can bring something to the attention of their fanbase.  During the audition, find out if your prospect has a large following on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or Vine?  Do their videos have a high number of views on YouTube and Vimeo?  How big is their network on LinkedIn?  How many views a month does their blog get?  If you choose an actor with a large following, ensure that they will promote the project in their social media network.
As you audition, prepare a page for each actor and number it from 1 to 7.  Create your very own point scale for the 7 things above (ex. 1 to 5; 1 = No Good, 5 = Very Good, etc.) to help you assess between different actors who come.  Because each project is different, weigh each of the 7 things according to your needs and let that help you assess, as well.   

The COVID-19 “Get Back to Filmmaking” Checklist

The COVID-19 “Get Back to Filmmaking” Checklist A 40-point checklist from development to post-production   by Danny Jiminian