As a first time producer, the sole financier and only executive for It’s Us, I drank new information in like fire from a fire hose. Here are my tips for any first time indie producer.
1. The team is everything.
When you’re on a budget the size of a fleet of minivans, and principal filming is squeezed into a matter of a few months, you’re basically at summer camp with everyone working on the film. Everyone from the gaffer to the line producer has to be emotionally invested in the film. They won’t be paid a lot, and the accommodations will be meager, so they have to have something else motivating them.
For the part of the filming where we were in Vermont, we stayed at Colin Thompson’s (writer, director, actor) childhood house. Larry, Colin’s dad, would always have meals ready for us and he blew up a bunch of air mattresses for the crew. We’re talking about adults throwing a month long slumber party. It was a blast. I think Larry had just as much fun as we did!
2. A lot of people will say they will do stuff to help you, but won’t.
“OMG I will totally introduce you to that distribution company.”
“Oh, you don’t have an agent, I will be your agent for now and get people to watch your film.”
“Yes, let’s meet up for dinner and about your next project.”
These are just a handful of the things that people said to us and then didn’t do. I have touched many industries in my life including real estate, venture capital, technology, banking, and architecture, but never have I experienced so many empty promises. I understand this is just an accepted norm in the film industry, so if you’re a first time producer, maximize your chances of success by understanding this pervasive attitude.
You’ll probably have to increase the amount of people you have to get help from because of it. It just means that you’ll have to try that much harder which may not a bad thing. It separates the people who actually want to get a great film out there vs. those who are just going through the motions.
3. You’re going to go over budget and it’s going to take longer than you think.
This is self-explanatory. When your director says you have a certain budget for principal filming, double it. Also you have to factor in attorney’s fees, insurance, music licensing, and a whole host of other costs that I purposefully forgot about because they were so annoying and unexpected.
4. You and the director have to love, or really like each other.
There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs as with any new venture. Mostly because you’re not prepared for the unexpected. You and your director, or co-producers should have a combination of these five traits, which I pulled from Y Combinator: 1. Determination, 2. Flexibility, 3. Imagination, 4. Naughtiness and 5. Friendship.
I remember getting the call from Colin when we landed Eliza Coupe, he and I were both in tears. It was a special moment. I also remember when I found out he had mistakenly charged a host of Uber rides on the production budget and I had to lay into him because we were already well over budget. I also remember a moment when we thought we had lost all the digital footage after the first few weeks of filming because a transfer on one of the computers had stalled out and it looked like the computer had shut off.
All of these emotions can be manageable if you love, or really like the director. If you’re at each other’s throats all the time, the film will fall apart.
I recommend that the producer give all creative control to a writer / director and just let them do their thing. If you believed in the script and the people to begin with, micromanaging will erode trust.
I don’t know a lot about making movies, but I know a lot about how new companies work. In any great startup you have to have an awesome co-founder. The same applies here.
5. A lot of people will do favors for you if you ask them.
People (myself included) will always be enchanted with the world of filmmaking. It truly is one big magic trick. We got a lot of favors from a whole host of people who just wanted to be near an independent film.
Whether they want to say they know the director, the actress, or they want to see how the secret sauce is made, there’s a whole category of people who will do very big favors for you. The key is that you just have to know how to ask.
Here’s how we did it. And it worked a lot of the time.
“How you doin’? We produced a small indie flick (yes, we do now realize how dumb and non-lucrative this profession is) called IT’S US. We need (X favor) from you. We are scrapping to find even the one thousand for the (X favor) -- that’s actually coming from one of our niece’s piggy bank. We’re certainly not singing a sad song here -- we made this bed. We love this bed. We just need a little help…well, we already made it, so…maybe we need help washing the sheets? Let’s figure it out...”
6. Marketing your film is a test in hustle.
Even if you land an awesome distribution deal like we did (Thanks The Orchard!), you’ll still want to get the word out and get the film in the audience’s hands. Pre-order links are awesome and hosting screenings in big cities can get some early buzz. We were fortunate to have a big push from public radio and this all came from personal relationships. We’ve done some weird stuff too. We printed small business cards that have the movie poster on them with a funny note on the back “Hey, Netflix and Chill with It’s Us tonight J”. When you hand that card to a person they can see how much you care about the film, they’ll probably tell a few people. The point here is try a bunch of things, you never know what will give you that spike in viewership.
PS - It’s Us is available on iTunes (and Amazon, Google Play, Playstation, Xbox, Vudu).