This week’s blog has been inspired by a great Christmas film and my favourite film of all time- ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. There are spoilers in here so if you haven’t seen the film, go and watch it and come back to read this in a couple of days when you come down from your high. I’m not going to write too much about story or filmmaking techniques here, and it’s not an analysis of the film, it’s just some fun lessons we can learn. So...
Release your film at the right time: the film wasn’t a success at the box office (but wasn’t a total flop as is often believed), grossing around half its production costs. However- maybe things could have been different; this is a great Christmas film so releasing in December would have made sense but it only went on wide release on January 7th. A costly mistake.
Cinema might not be your best platform: after it’s lukewarm box office and one solidarity Oscar win (from 6 nominations however) the film was forgotten about for decades. It only came back into public consciousness and gained the prominence it deserved after a clerical error in the copyright allowed dozens of US TV stations to screen it freely in the late 70s and early 80s, making it a massive family hit. Although we as filmmakers dream of a big cinema release, perhaps we should be exploring other platforms more to find our audience, after all, there are dozens of distribution methods out there.
Double up on locations: in the film there’s a scene where the gym has a sliding floor which reveals a swimming pool underneath (it might seem a bit contrived but it was actually a real location in a high school). What can you learn from this? Use the building you hire for two or more locations, saves you money and travelling time, helping you get the most value for your production. I did this in Young Hearts Run Free by changing the wallpaper and furniture coverings.
Crowd-funding relationships take time: George Bailey benefits from some crowd-funding, because he has been benefiting these people for a number of years, they like him and want to support him. Value and respect people over a period of time and provide a benefit to them and it will help your crowd-fund campaign.
Appreciate your day job: Many filmmakers these days need to keep up a day job in order to support their film career. Don’t be ashamed or frustrated by this and instead show some passion in your day job. George Bailey hates his job but realises its importance and demonstrates great passion towards it. It will make you a much happier person, and more relaxed when you get home, ready to start your film work. I’ve been lucky enough to have jobs working with the kind of people I like to make films about so it has tied in with my films and made them authentic.
Sometimes it’s okay for actors to look into the camera: Actors look into the camera two or three times in this film, think how much it intensifies the drama. As a bonus, here are some other technique tips from the film- the opening prayers for George lets the audience relax knowing there will be big drama later- useful given the time it takes to get there. Also, just how fresh is that freeze-frame the first time we see adult George? Remember this film was made in 1946. Brilliant.
Don’t become warped and frustrated: Becoming a ‘warped, frustrated young man’ can lead to becoming a ‘warped, frustrated old man’ so don’t let frustration get the better of you. Rather than moan about funding bodies having favourites, meddling script notes or audiences not knowing anything- believe in yourself and the path you’re on, keeping learning and evaluating and make things happen for yourself. These days your film career is in your own hands, more than it has ever been.
I’ll sum up by saying that although this is my favourite film and one of my favourite pieces of art in the history of the world- I do still have an uneasy relationship with it (maybe that’s why I connect with it so well). As filmmakers we’re like George- full of grand plans and ambitions but should we be happy to settle for a more normal life? I’ve always found it to be an awkward question. Now as I’ve grown older I’ve learned to never stop with the ambitions but still appreciate the journey and be grateful for the life you have.