By Robert Long II ©2010

The following advice is likely to get me in hot water with some fellow filmmakers – as they will feel I am talking about them and their productions (not true!). I can assure the readers that this is more of an overview from my 20+ years of experience – including my time in Hollywood. I am not out to pick apart any of my peers, but to have filmmakers do a very serious reality check to themselves:

What do you want to accomplish?

Loaded question? Not really – but a very VALID one.

Do you want to tell a story with moving pictures? Do you want to craft something good, or just slap something together quickly so you can say you are a filmmaker? Do you want your ego stroked? Do you really care about the project you are working on? Do you have the stamina to go the distance and finish the project? Do you treat movie-making as a serious business, or more of a social gathering to get your buddies together?

Who is your audience? Are you trying to create something the masses will enjoy, or something so riddled with “in-jokes” that only your friends and family will get it? Do you want to do something that has the chance to make back its money, something that will be the rave of the festival circuit, or do a production that will collect dust on a shelf?

Do you have a game plan? Have you got a solid story and a polished script, or are you off and running with the barest sketch of a plot and hoping that you can make it up as you go along? Have you set goals and deadlines to get the movie done, or do you sit around and only work when your “muse” strikes you? Is your story tight, or do you have scenes that do NOTHING for the overall picture, and you have included them because you thought they were “neat?”

Do you hire only the best people within your means, or do you try to cram every damn family member and friend into a part – regardless of if they have ANY on-screen presence at all?

At this point I am sure there are a few people squirming in their computer chairs because I have hit a little too close to home. It will not surprise me if I get more than a few irate emails. I’m not out to embarrass anyone; I’m asking how successful do you want your movie to be, and how hard are you willing to work for it?

Here is a big budget example of a movie that went straight into the toilet because of many of these factors; Steven Spielberg’s 1941. The movie kept growing and getting larger and splintered to the point where it was all over the place; too many story threads, too many different stories, too many different subplots, TONS of guest stars… and no focus whatsoever. It was all over the place and the returns at the box office showed this. Who can you concentrate on if you have over 25 major characters, plus you’re playing the game every two minutes of “spot the guest star?” What story do you follow if you have six different subplots to work into a 100 minute movie?

And yet many, many independent filmmakers try to cram everything plus the kitchen sink into their productions. I think I have figured out why; the filmmaker feels they may never have this chance again, so they throw every idea they have ever had into the production. The irony of it all is that the movie turns out to be such a mediocre mess that they don’t get the chance to do it again; they have shot themselves in the foot.

Do you consider yourself a serious movie maker, or a weekend warrior movie maker? The difference is easy to see.
1. The serious movie maker treats the craft like a business. They know that everything and everyone is important to creating, producing, and completing a feature or short. They want to above all else – tell a story and entertain the audience. Lighting, a tight script, clear audio, precise editing, solid acting, clear camera work, and a good internal structure with the cast and crew is essential. The bottom line is that the serious movie maker will take it to the limit to complete the best film they can within their means. They have a true passion for what they do, yet have enough business sense to know that a good product has a better chance and grabbing a wider audience.

2. The weekend warrior filmmaker is a different breed. This breed tends to be bigger in numbers than the serious filmmaker. They only have the flimsiest idea of the “story” they want to put on the screen, and like to wing it as much as possible. They generally do not have the patience it takes to hone their craft. A lot of times their movies are poorly lit and have terrible audio. The screen tends to be filled with “in” jokes that are only funny to those who made the movie. These filmmakers hope that by splashing fake blood, lots of boobs, and lots of swearing on the screen that the viewer will be distracted from how terrible the production truly is. These “filmmakers” (I use the term loosely) also get offended when their work is not well received, and blame it on the audience “not getting it” rather than the fact that they put a cheap piece of cow dung up for all to see. For examples of this type of movie maker, you can look at a good 80% of what ends up on Youtube.

I would also try to caution filmmakers from using every person they know in the universe up on the screen just for the sake of saying “Aunt Clara brought cookies to the set, so I had to give her some screen time.” Here’s a Hollywood example: a known horror performer was miffed that director Don Coscarelli did not have a part for them in Bubba Ho Tep. The tough reality of the situation for them is that there WAS no place in the story to put them. It was Bruce Campbell and Ozzie Davis’ movie, and to have had a guest star in there would have been a case of “spot the 5-second cameo.” Every time an extra part is written because a filmmaker MAY have access to a known performer weakens the basic story. Every time they want to put their non talented relatives up on the screen takes away from the integrity of the finished product. I have no problem using folks as background performers or for crew, but the main people and the story is what needs to count in the production. They must have on-screen charisma. Bigger is not always better, and the larger a production gets the more of a chance it has to implode on itself.

The bottom line: the BEST advice I can give to independent filmmakers is to stay focused on the STORY of your movie. It’s not about showing what cute trick your dog can do, it’s not about listening to Uncle Morty sing, and it is NOT about rewriting the script to make sure you have included every family member and friend that you have had since 2nd grade. DO NOT SPLINTER YOUR ENERGIES – stay focused and stay on target. You just might end up surprised by the quality of your end product.