BIG BRAINS - small budgets: DIY Filmmaking Advice

BIG BRAINS – small budgets: Jon Reiss (Bomb It, Better Living Through Circuitry, Cleopatra’s Second Husband)

Jon Reiss is an author and media strategist who helps filmmakers and companies navigate the new distribution and marketing landscape.  He has worked with and consulted for Paramount Pictures, Screen Australia, Film Independent, Creative Scotland, The South Australian Film Corporation and numerous film schools and festivals to devise ways to educate and help independent filmmakers in the new economic landscape.    He has conducted his TOTBO Master Classes over five continents and is the year-round distribution and marketing lab leader at the IFP Filmmaker Labs.

Named one of “10 Digital Directors to Watch” by Daily Variety, Jon Reiss is also critically acclaimed filmmaker whose experience releasing his feature Bomb It with a hybrid strategy was the inspiration for writing Think Outside the Box Office: The Ultimate Guide to Film Distribution and Marketing in the Digital Era (TOTBO), the first step-by-step guide for filmmakers to distribute and market their films.  He also co-wrote Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul and Selling Your Film Outside the US.

He is currently producing The Good Breast, a feature documentary about breast cancer and the meaning of the breast in America. He also teaches at the Film Directing Program at Cal Arts.

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I got into filmmaking through punk rock. Even then, it was all about DIY. The whole punk scene was about saying, “We are not going to wait for anyone’s approval. We are not going to think about record labels. We’re going to play music. We’re not going to wait for regular clubs to book us. We’re just going to play wherever we can get a gig.” And that whole ethos is what has driven my work throughout my career.

Part of the reason I was interested in Better Living Through Circuitry was because of the DIY nature of that scene. Clubs would turn DJs and promoters down, and they said, “Screw that! We’ll play in a warehouse; we’re just going to do it ourselves.” It’s the same thing with graffiti artists. They’re not waiting for the art world to say their art is validated. They just create art wherever they want to create art.

Why wait? If you do wait for people who have money, then you’re beholden to their ideas. And those ideas aren’t always going to be in sync with your own.

In a sense, it’s critical to freedom of speech – being able to express opinions and have a free flow of ideas without having to wait for other people’s approval or money. You don’t wait for people to give you money in order to express yourself. That’s the basis of DIY. It’s that you express yourself without getting permission from anyone.

But now anyone can make a film – with no money. It’s not that difficult with today’s technology to go out and shoot with a very small crew. Today’s technology makes it so that you really don’t need very many, or any, other people to be involved. You can write a script, go out and shoot it, cut it yourself and end up with a film. The hard part is getting that film out into the world.

I talk to a lot of filmmakers who make films by themselves and they get to distribution and marketing and are like, “Oh my God! How can I do this by myself?” So that’s why I would recommend some forethought. You have to be really aware of what your expectations are and if you want people to see your film to know who the audience is for your film. Who’s going to want to see this film? You should incorporate that into the expectations and the plans that you have for the film.

The first step towards creating and releasing a film is to set your goals. You need to be realistic about your objectives, what challenges you need to overcome, what you are aiming to achieve. Not just creative goals, but also audience connection goals (the distribution and marketing).  These need to be in line with your constraints, your budget, and your resources. You need to have prepared for not just the filmmaking process itself, but also having the film go out into the world and consider where this film sits in your career path. How is it going to work for your sustainability as an artist? I know people don’t want to hear that. They think, “I’m passionate about this. I want to do this right now”. But a little bit of planning makes sense, especially in terms of your career and how this works within being sustainable.

The second step is determining what is the nature of the film? What kind of film is it? What genre? Are there any hooks in it? Can you make the film as good as it can possibly be? How are you going to make the film the best it can possibly be – in the script stage (really honing the script) and in the post-production phase? You should get people to look at it and get some honest feedback throughout the filmmaking process.

The third step is identifying and connecting with your audience. You need to know who the audience is and how that audience consumes media. What value can you provide to that audience? You want to reach people, communicate with people and share your ideas with people, and that’s great, but you need to understand what the best forum to reach them is. Will they pay for media?

When you are budgeting for production and if you need to recoup money or make money from the film you need to be realistic about how you are going to earn that.  Does your audience pay for content and if they do, where and how?

The fourth step is to set your budget and allocate your resources. This isn’t just about money – it’s also about time and manpower. If you are lacking the experience or resources to do a certain task you should definitely think of bringing in outside help. Find yourself a producer, get them involved from the beginning. Put them or someone else (what I would call a Producer of Marketing and Distribution) in charge of the distribution and marketing process and audience engagement. That way you can focus on filmmaking.

Both of my first features were DIY and even Bomb It was DIY in a sense. For Bomb, we had a very small production crew – just me and the Producer/DP Tracy Wares.  We had a decently sized post crew, but I ended up doing the release pretty much by myself, which was insane. It’s easier to find people to help you during the production process than it is for distribution and marketing because the distribution and marketing stage is not as sexy.  But finding someone for this role is something I definitely advocate.

Frankly if you have a choice between assembling a team to make the film versus a team to distribute the film, I would go with the second option; because I think if you are filmmaker you can do a lot of that stuff yourself. I shot Bomb It 2 entirely by myself.  Filmmakers are not so adept at distribution or marketing, so I would definitely bring a team of people on board to help with that if it is possible.

One way to work this is to start with I someone who is really interested in social media and connecting with other people who will help with that engagement process from the beginning. That would be a primary team member I’d try to get and have them learn the rest of the process – thereby becoming a defacto Producer of Marketing and Distribution and if they do the work, then they should get that credit.

DIY to me is a philosophy, I really don’t recommend the “Yourself” part of it in practice. I recommend the philosophy –“If no one is going to help make this happen, I’m just going to go and I’m not going to ask permission.” I’m just going to go out and do it. But if you can get other people involved at any stage or in any capacity, then you definitely should, and hopefully they have the same level of enthusiasm for what their specialty is as you have for filmmaking.

Before you start making a film you need to know why you are doing it. What’s your motivation? The only reason that a DIY filmmaker should make their own films is if they are passionate about what they want to communicate in the film. They need to be so passionate that they won’t wait for other people to tell them whether it’s alright or not. I don’t think there is any other reason really.

My personal motivation for my first film, Cleopatra’s Second Husband, was that I wanted to make a feature film. I’d made documentaries before. I’d been part of the punk rock scene in San Francisco and I’d made documentaries. I’d made music videos. But I went to film school with the idea of making a feature film. It was something I really wanted to achieve. Make a feature film.

Also, I had this idea that I really wanted to express – one that I was really passionate about. And so those two things combined were the reasons that I want to make a film. Passionate to make a film, and passionate about the idea behind it.

Better Living Through Circuitry was a little different because the idea was brought to me by a friend. I was brought on board the project by my producer, Brian McNelis. I was skeptical at first as to whether there was a film there and what the meaning was. I wasn’t an EDM fan at the time. One night when I went out filming, I looked at my watch and it was 9 pm. I filmed for a bit, looked at my watch again, thinking half an hour had passed, and it was 6 am. I said “Wow. Something’s going on here.” I had started meditating at the time, and on that shoot I had a feeling that I had had a deep, intense meditation, even though I was at this dance party. I asked people about it and they were like, “Yeah, that’s why we do it.” I also found there’s a huge DIY aspect to the culture, so both of those things really excited me.

On Bomb It – very early on we interviewed Stefano Bloch, who is a graffiti writer in Los Angeles, but also a geography professor. He was a student at the time and had such amazing ideas about public space and the relationship of graffiti and street art to public space and the reclaiming of public space. That’s when it hit me like, “Oh my God! This is it, there’s a film here.” Ten years later and I still get chills. I look back on it and I think “that was a lot of fucking work. I made no money, but I don’t regret it at all. I would do it again in a heartbeat.” If you don’t have those chills and you don’t have that passion, don’t make the film. Don’t make films if you don’t have that drive, here are other ways of making a living that are lot easier than film.

I made my first documentaries back when I was in the punk rock scene in San Francisco. I was very passionate about punk rock and I really felt the same way with the Survival Research Laboratories. My motivation then was about seeing it work and I felt that other people should know about it. I wanted to share with other people and communicate these ideas visually through the medium of film. Even now that is what determines a lot of my work. You find something that you are passionate about that you want to communicate through film.

I think most people who are making independent films, who are going out and doing it themselves, are using that philosophy. I think that if you more narrowly define “DIY” then there probably is more of a distinction, but most people in independent film these days are embracing some kind of DIY philosophy. They may not be doing it practically – they might be involving a lot of other people, not doing it all by themselves, but to me I don’t define DIY that narrowly.

I think you only have to have some kind of independent spirit and be trying to create some kind of singular vision to be classified as an independent filmmaker. If there is one common thread through my documentary work, it’s that it’s all about subversive subcultures, and all the subcultures do it themselves. Even the Survival Research Laboratories documentary that I did with Mark Pauline was totally outside of the artistic mainstream. He would just create a public spectacle and people would come. He wouldn’t wait for anyone to give him permission to do that and I loved that from the beginning.

In the 90s, it was quite different. I think in the 80’s and the 90’s there were a lot of independent films being financed and people were waiting for people to finance films or they wouldn’t make the film. So the DIY films were the ones where the directors decided that they were not going to wait anymore. They were going to do it by themselves. That’s what I did with Cleopatra’s Second Husband.

That’s a good example of the distinction between DIY and independent. Independent film is still dependent on finance – someone financing your film – whereas DIY is all done off your own back. In the 90s maybe the divide was bigger, but the distinctions are very blurred nowadays as the cost of making a film has come down, the technology has improved and the internet has enabled directors to build an audience and raise funds through crowdfunding.

These days there are still people with money who help films get made, but I think a lot of it is on the filmmaker to make it happen, for example raising the money through crowd funding. Once the film is finished and there’s a product there ready to be released, maybe then some people may come on board with financing and funding.

That’s especially true for first-time filmmakers because you have to prove yourself. Why should someone finance your film when you can’t get it done by yourself? The people who come in and help the filmmaker with financing are often helping them make their next films, not the first film.

That’s why I specifically wrote Cleopatra’s Second Husband to be something that if nobody financed it, I could make myself. I wrote it specifically to be extremely low budget. In those days that was extremely low budget.

Back in the 90s people would wait longer for someone else to come up with the money. Now people do that much less, if at all. Especially with first films, I don’t think people are waiting.  Technology and crowdfunding have changed that.

You still need to hone the script and get it into shape to show it to people and there’s a lot of competition from other filmmakers, other projects, because the DIY movement has exploded across all industries. Most of the films I see these days are pretty darn good and the knowledge of making films is becoming accessible.

You don’t have to go to film school to learn the craft of directing, but you need to learn the craft somehow. There are books – there is an amazing Edward Dmytryk book on directing. I read that before I shot my feature to remind me of all the basics and a bit beyond.

There is lots of information on DVD extras. That’s how Paul Thomas Anderson said learned how to direct – by watching behind the scenes and DVD extras.  But film school can help you learn and hone your craft and vision if that is what you want.

You have to understand why you are putting the camera where you are putting it, because this is a film – it’s not a play, it’s not a book, it’s a film. What is the reason for the scene? Why is the camera moving, why is the camera placed in that place, why is the frame that frame? What is your shooting strategy for the film? How does it fit the story you are trying to tell?

I would also really consider whether film is the right medium for you. Why are you making a film versus a series? You should at least consider something that might be episodic because the episodic world lends itself a little bit more to the landscape of engaging an audience. There is also a lot more money for production in episodic these days. People like to be engaged over time. Netflix started out as a site that primarily streamed movies, but now it is dominated TV shows and series. That is because they discovered that this is what their audience wants.

I did music videos for a little while after film school and before making my features. The music video path is also difficult. I think it is different now because so much is seen on YouTube. I was making music videos before the internet and in the days when MTV was playing less and less music videos. Record labels started seeing less and less use for videos and so the budgets came down tremendously. The work dried up to an extent. I think that changed a lot with YouTube and the internet, but the budgets are still generally a lot lower than they were in MTV’s heyday.

On the flip side, there’s a lot more creative freedom now in music video. It could be a good way to cut your teeth, and if you like the art form, then that’s great, but I think it’s a difficult way to make a living. You have to constantly pitch to multiple projects – ten or so to get any one job. It’s a full-time job and you end up being fully committed to it. It becomes hard to do other things. I found I couldn’t make a feature whilst working making music videos. I remember one of my editors asked me what I wanted to do. He said most filmmakers who eventually became successful first had to stop directing music videos cold turkey. So I stopped and focused strictly on making a feature.

You have to kind of pick what is most important to you. If music videos are your primary purpose in life, then pursue it as a vocation. If you’re inspired and passionate about it, it can be a great way to gain experience. But if you’re just doing it to tick a box, you should step back and focus on what the actual goals are that you want to achieve.

At that time music videos were a way to move up the ladder, build your show reel and then find people to give you money to make a feature and they still do work in that regard, but nowadays it’s so much easier to make a film. Back then you were really dependent on other people’s resources. You had to prove yourself. Nowadays one way that still works is to make a short film that’s similar to a feature, maybe even part of a feature, and then you’re able to show you can execute the feature because you executed the short really well. People are doing this now with success, but it has to be a really exceptional short. And it has to be an exceptional idea for a feature.

The other alternative is making a web series and engaging and building an audience through the web series or a variety of different kinds of short form or branded content.  There is a lot of work out there for people starting out.

I think something is to be said for finding a niche that is underserved and creating media for that audience.  Maybe there’s a niche out there that doesn’t have any films that relate to it and the audience can pay for media, are just dying for media, and no one’s giving it to them. I would still recommend being passionate about the project, because it’s so hard and you may be wrong about the potential niche, so you might end up with a film about that no one buys. They may just steal it or borrow it. Unless your passionate about it that’s a problem. In general, you need to understand how crowded the media landscape is, and truly understand what your goals are with the project. You must keep your expectations reasonable and be really conservative in your finances.

Be prepared that there’s most likely a 99% chance you are also going to be responsible for getting this film out into the world and connecting with audiences. You have to save resources, money, time and energy and to do this. You really need to plan ahead and  strategize how to potentially do this within the production of the film as well as – saving resources and being prepared for the distribution and marketing of the film project.

My rule of thumb is there should be a 50/50 split. Half the work of making a film is the making of the film itself and the other half is connecting that film to an audience. You have to be aware that the chance of someone coming along and distributing the film for you is only a very remote possibility.

Nowadays with crowd funding it may be a bit easier, but crowd funding is not easy in any way shape or form. Everything about film is difficult. If people want an easy road, film is not the way to go.

With Cleopatra’s Second Husband, I wrote the script and I went out and tried to find someone to finance the film. It’s a very dark script and people either said “no” flat out or else they liked parts of it but wanted the ending changed or other aspects changed that I wasn’t prepared to change. I thought “Well I can spend the next year trying to develop it and maybe it will get made or maybe it won’t. Or I can go out and try to raise the money myself and do it myself” so I decided to do it myself. I went out and raised equity from family and friends and made the film myself.

The budget for Cleopatra was $300,000, which was a micro budget film in those days. Nowadays, with technology being so readily accessible, people are making movies for $300. I think it’s great. You just have to understand what your expectations are. Gregory Bayne made a film called Person of Interest for $500. And then raised $15,000 to distribute it on Kick Starter

That’s not even 50/50 that’s 5% of the money going towards its production and then 95% going to distribution and marketing. He got a decent release, got it out into the world, launched his career and then he moved on with another film –( which he then crowdfunded for $40,000). He got into a couple of film festivals, got it out on digital and DVD, had some screenings and called it a day.

For Cleopatra’s Second Husband and this applies generally to narrative films, coming up with the script, and coming up with the script that I thought was worth making, was one of the most challenging aspects of that film. I wrote that script to be low budget taking nearly all in one house with four characters.

It took a long time to write the first script, to go back and edit it and fix it until it was something I was happy with.

If it’s a narrative film, you need to really look at the script, as much as possible, before you make your film to make sure you know your script. Even if you’re given a script from someone else you should still look at the script and improve it as much as possible. You must prepare as much as possible before you start shooting including ample preproduction work because that’s going to save you so much grief during production.

For narrative films, the script is written prior to preproduction generally and in documentaries the script is written mostly in postproduction. With documentaries, having an idea and shooting is easy. The most difficult part is when you start editing and you have to find the story.

To me, DIY film is about is making films that are not dependent on the studio system or any other form of external finance or “permission” – it is a world without gatekeepers. This and keeping your costs down makes you less reliant on conventional commercial constraints. The DIY phenomenon has already exploded. It’s not just in film, it’s DIY everything these days. People believe in it. Apple was DIY at first.  Many of the dominant companies today started as DIY startups – in fact many if not most entrepreneurs have that DIY ethos – and I would say that filmmakers and all artists are essentially entrepreneurs.

Our society would not be where we are today without DIY. We wouldn’t have the technology, culture and lifestyles that we have if it wasn’t for people doing it themselves. 

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