Chapter 1: A Warning
Things to think about, or, why you shouldn’t just go ahead and make a feature film.
I didn’t go to film school and hadn’t made short films before I attempted to do a feature. Well, I had made a couple as practise when I was still a history student but they were terrible and I didn’t show them to anyone. After working in the industry a bit as Production Manager, I jumped straight into a feature, aged 23: and I would now advise you not to. I’m not saying I regret it or that no good has come of it, far from it, but it could have been great and less of an albatross around my neck if I had someone to give me this following advice (then again, they might have done but I was probably too young and headstrong and I would have ignored it!). Here are some reasons why you should make short films or a webseries before attempting a feature:
Practise: You’ll make mistakes in every film and you’ll learn a lot. You improve and learn a lot with every film so you’re always a better director than you were when you started that film. By the time it is finished, it no longer reflects your true abilities. However, you will be judged on your last film, not what you plan to do next. If you’re going to be judged on it then it feels better having a shorter turnover between starting the film and showing it.
Cost: Shorts are generally a lot cheaper than features. For the money I managed to scrape together for the feature I could have made a couple of really high quality short films which would have looked great on my showreel and won some festival awards. This will help you get a proper budget for the feature. On the other hand, at least if you do a good job on the feature you have a chance of recouping some of that money. There are some distribution channels for shorts, but you can’t make money from them.
Meeting collaborators: Much of this book will tell you that you can’t do all this on your own. I didn’t know anyone before I made my feature so had to go about crewing from scratch and it was really difficult. Some positions went unfilled. If you make short films you’ll find it easier to find crew (even low pay or no pay) if they only have to give up a few days of their time. You’ll get a chance to work with a lot of collaborators and forge relationships with them, especially producers and DoPs, maybe even actors. Making a feature is a long and arduous battle (several years) so you want to know that you’ll have good partners to go through the journey with you. You can test relationships out on shorts.
Building a fanbase: Throughout this book I’ll be explaining how to build up support and begin marketing a feature way before it is finished. Once your short has done festival rounds then you can spread it on You Tube, Vimeo and the like to build up a following and awareness of your work. Think of it as transmedia work for your feature.
Getting funding: I discovered that screen agencies are more likely to fund people they have a previous relationship with. I realise that their short film funding opportunities have dramatically decreased and that they get hundreds of applications so it’s best not to rely on waiting on them for funding for a short. Even if you fund it yourself, the screen agency might be able to help with festival support so you’ll be beginning the relationship with them. Private equity funders such as businessmen who might invest in feature films are going to be even more hard-nosed and won’t fund anyone with no experience; you will need to prove to them that you have a track record.
Time to improve your feature script: Your feature script will need improvements anyway. That is a fact that often gets ignored. Rather than rushing into feature production with an under-developed script, make a short or two whilst re-drafting it. Your filmmaking skills and the quality of the next draft will be far better for it. Remember- it needs to be outstanding.
Press: No one grabs headlines all about a 'so-so' feature film, you want them reading about 'An Outstanding Debut'. Look at Director Rob Savage, although extremely young, he had been practising making succesful shorts for years before doing his self-funded feature, meaning he got all these brilliant accolades for 'Strings'.
Right, that’s your warning out of the way! If you’re anything like me then you might jump into a feature anyway, and let nothing stop you.