10 Things I Learnt Making My First Film (Independent Documentary Feature)
My name is Mark Myers, I'm a writer/director for the Bell Media Agency in Toronto, and I have worked in television for over a decade. I'm no pro, but I've received a number of Promax awards and even a Gemini nomination for Best Reality Series - plus I've got to work with artist like Sam Smith, Lorde, Fun., and Ed Sheeran. (vimeo.com/mmyers)
Three years ago, before I even starting shooting my first feature-length documentary, I thought that once completed it would be at top-tier film festivals, and I envisioned myself on stage doing Q&As and accepting awards. I had high hopes.
Cut to three years later (present day) - none of that happened. My film didn't get accepted to the 10+ festivals I submitted to, including my hometown documentary fest, HotDocs. The film didn't win any awards, and surprise surprise, it wasn't nominated for an Oscar (did I forget to mention that I even thought that was a possibility?).
I may sound delusional, but trust me, I have a healthy (even un-healthy) dose of self-criticism. Besides, if you're going to commit to the difficult task of making a movie, you need some delusions of grandeur.
Nevertheless, the end goal was to always have the film end up on Netflix; because that's where I watch films, and that's where everyone I know watches films. Plus just saying, "It's on Netflix" is super cool, and ultimately legitimizes the film (in my mind).
So I am more than happy to say that my doc Delivery is officially on Netflix... in over 10 countries I might add.
The question you might have is how did I get an independent documentary, with no festival laurels, or any major buzz for that matter, on Netflix? I can tell you the whole story, but I thought it would be better to list the top 10 things I learned while making my first independent feature film/documentary.
1. Just start filming.
I don't mean start filming before you have an idea of what you want. Because for me it took about 3 years of this idea being on the back-burner before a couple story elements fell into place (namely, my wife became pregnant) where I felt like I had enough for a film. In short, I knew the beginning and the ending before I started to roll, or at least I thought I did. Long story long, start filming to get the ball rolling (you need inertia on your side).
2. The value of going where your story takes you.
My doc started with the basic idea of following myself and three friends on a hopefully funny and terrifying journey of trying stand-up comedy for the first time, before the birth of my first kid. However, when we started filming, it was revealed that the father of one of the guys involved was dying of cancer and only had months to live. The question was, do we stick to the overly comedic film that we intended on making, or do we adjust our tone and make the doc about life, death, and stand-up comedy? We chose to go where the story was taking us, and because of that I feel like we make something special. The lesson here is to be rigid but flexible, and go with the flow.
3. Imagine you're making a scripted narrative film
This may sound strange and contrived if you're a true documentation... and it probably is. But for me, structure was very important. I wanted the doc to feel like a "movie". The end goal was to have a funny and emotional film with compelling characters and almost classic narrative arc. I made the movie for me, but with the audience in mind. So yes, I did reference Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet http://www.savethecat.com/tools/the-blake-snyder-beat-sheet-the-bs2). *This is something you can focus on more during editing, but it doesn't hurt to have these ideas floating around during pre-production and production. 4. Be prepared for a long journey.
This is two-fold. One, it's important to know that the journey is long because a long journey is often a difficult one. Making a movie is not easy - in case you didn't know. Iplanned on shooting for three months and cutting the film together quickly, and I would be "done" in about 6 months... that was not the case. And two, if you know the journey (of making the film) will be long, you will be more selective on the project you choose to embark on. *A good and bad movie take the same amount of effort.
5. Keep your budget ultra low. Every dollar you spend on your film is one more dollar you'll have to make back before you start to see profit. And to be perfectly honest, you may never see a profit. This isn't Rocket Science, but being financially responsible will benefit you in the long-run, and the monetary limitation you put on yourself could allow for creative opportunities that will ultimately separate you from everyone else. Besides, story is worth more than gear.
And, you'll need a bunch of extra money to pay for a lawyer, insurance, music rights, festival submissions. Just FYI, a lawyer cost more than it took to shoot the doc.
6. Form a trusted crew/team (and keep it small). This is another obvious one, but there are enough things that can go wrong when making a movie, and a bunch of things that will make you want to quit along the way, so the last thing you want is a camera guy not showing up on time, or people threatening to quit.
A trusted crew or co-producter will not only help get the film off the ground, but will also help get it to the finish line - thanks Shane!
7. The good and bad of Kickstarter After shooting the doc I created a Kickstarter campaign to try and raise funds to help finish and promote the film. I set a project goal of $16,000, but after the dust settled the majority of my donations/backers came from friends and family - which was wonderfully sweet, but ultimately sad, and made me feel like a charity.
Part of the purpose of doing a Kickstarter campaign is it's a great marketing tool, and that is only effective if you're getting backers that are outside your immediate circle or friends (or Facebook friends).
So, the important reality that you should face if you decide to crowd fund is that you're more than likely only going to get donations/backers from people you know - if you're cool with that, then consider it.
If you have a successful campaign, then the thing that comes to kick you in the ass is the fact that you have to fulfill all those "rewards". And shipping t-shirts and DVDs around the country can get expensive (not to mention the production cost of creating the rewards).
So I suggest keeping things digital. A digital copy of the film. A digitally signed poster. A (insert digital idea here) thing.
Give yourself the restriction of not shipping rewards and see what you can come up with.
But still make t-shirts. They are walking billboards and do work.
8. The value of a good lawyer
Get a lawyer. I needed one because my film had some "fair-use" clips, and I needed them to give me an Opinion Letter in order to get the film insured (no one wants to get sued). But beyond that, they may have solid relationships with distributors and could suggest who you should go with (and help you get one), but also ensure the contracts are legit. Shout out to Donaldson + Callif.
9. The value of getting distribution. (I could write a ton about this, but I'll try and be brief). As I mentioned above, the doc didn't play in any festivals, so I didn't know if the film was going to get any distribution offers. It did (longer story), and I actually went with two different distribution companies. One for the US and one for Canada - leaving the International rights up for grabs. I was new to all of this, so I didn't want to put all of my eggs in one basket - and for me, I'm happy I went this route.
The Canadian distributor was able to have my film play theatrically in Toronto for a week, they got the film a decent amount of press with television and print interviews as well as reviewed. In contrast, the US distributor didn't generate any buzz for the film, and it didn't even get a single review.
Both companies got the film on iTunes (in their respected countries), but one of the big deals for me was that the Canadian company got the film on Netflix while in the States, the doc is on Hulu.
The takeaway - I suggest going with a smaller distributor, or at least a distributor that doesn't deal in bulk. In the US deal I went with the company with the bigger name, but Icouldn't help but feel like just a drop in a bucket.
10. No Money No Problems
Hope to generate money for making your film, but don't expect it. I haven't seen one cent yet... and because of distribution expenses and revenue sharing percentages, it's not likely I will see much. However the desire for money can be a great motivating factor, as it can help you produce a high quality end product, but the return on investment may not be in the form of dollars and cents. You're more likely going to benefit in other ways from making your film... as it may lead to your next film, or a job offer, or even a hot date (not in my case - I'm married with kids) - but I've seen it happen.
Bonus - How I got distribution and how the film got on Netflix.
A year and a half ago I got introduced to one of the other dads at my kid's daycare, who also happened to have made a film.
I told him about my documentary, and he put me in contact with his distributor over email. Coincidentally, one of the guys at the distribution company went to University with my brother - and I knew him pretty well also.
I sent them the film and they responded well to it, and were interested in acquiring the doc. I was super happy, but also hesitant as I was still waiting to hear from a couple film festivals where I thought a bunch of offers would come in... however, I had already been rejected by about 10 fests, so my confidence was diminishing.
The distribution company drafted up an agreement, and they were looking for world-wide rights. I didn't want to give up world-wide rights, so I spoke to my lawyer, and he sent the film out to some of his contacts. A US distribution company replied back and said that they wanted to acquire the film for world-wide distribution as well. Now I had a predicament. Do I go with my brother's friend who was the first to offer a deal, or go with the larger US company that had released a bunch of films I had heard of/seen. It took awhile to decide, but I ended up giving Canadian rights to the Canadian based company, and US rights to the US based company. Both distributors got my film on iTunes, and pay VOD (video on demand) at the same time, but as I mentioned above, the Canadian company worked much harder on the promotion of the film - and it even played theatrically in Toronto.
Moving forward, I expressed how important Netflix was to me, and that getting the film on that platform was the goal. I'm actually not too sure of the exact details as to how my Canadian distributor got the film on Netflix, aside from the fact that it got pitched to them, and they could have either accepted or passed on it. Thankfully they accepted it, and I have since received amazing emails from people around the world telling me that my film made them laugh, cry, and inspired them - which is pretty awesome and satisfying. If you happen to watch the film, and have any opinion on it, or questions, I'd love to hear - firstname.lastname@example.org