By Dick Rolfe - CEO, The Dove Foundation
Over the past several years we have been consulting with filmmakers at various stages of their craft. I feel it is important to address one particular issue that comes up frequently, especially from those who are just starting out, or those who have had a hard time getting their finished film to market. The common question is, “What must I do to make a financially successful movie?”
There are plenty of experts available to answer this crucial question. I don’t consider myself among them. But after 20 years of watching thousands of projects come through our offices, my observations might be of some value.
My advice begins with the axiom; the bottom line is still the bottom line. Perform your due diligence before you roll out the cameras. This is not a Field of Dreams world. You can build it and still no one will come if you haven’t done your homework. After all, it’s not called Show Art … it’s Show Business.
Developing a film or television show is no small task. It requires a multitude of skill sets and core competencies with hundreds of details to consider. With so much technology available at reasonable prices, one can be fooled into thinking that the only requirement to making a hit film is a vision and the proper equipment. That would be like me saying I can write a best-selling novel, because I have an idea and a word processer.
There’s no need listing all of the assets that are required before rolling the cameras. If you’re an experienced producer, you are all too familiar with the challenges. If you are a novice, by all means, seek the advice and collaboration of someone who’s been there-done that. There are a few overarching requirements to making your job easier and the end result more certain.
A compelling story in the form of a well-crafted script is the basic ingredient needed before anything else happens.
To accomplish that feat requires untold hours/weeks/months of writing, re-writing and collaborating with experts. Writer/Director, Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The day the Earth Stood Still) issued a challenge to up-and-coming screenwriters. He offered to read their screenplay if it was the fifth rewrite of the fifth script they had written.
Assuming you have in your hot little hands a winning screenplay, the next three ingredients; leverage, brand and distribution are of equal importance to your success.
By leverage, I mean a solid collaborative network of fellow professionals to advise and assist you in the project. Gather a small cadre of reputable colleagues in the industry who share your passion for getting your story on film and you are on your way. I know; it may slow down the process or add to your budget or require an equity split, but collaboration is not a 4-letter word. It’s called spreading the risk; that’s how the studio system thrives.
Many Christian filmmakers I’ve met with over the years believe that they are stewards of a precious vision given to them by God. I never quibble with those claims. I remind them, however, that the Bible does caution Believers to “lean not to your own understanding” and further advises them to “seek the counsel of others wiser than yourselves.”
Brand can be accomplished in several ways; the adaptation of a bestselling book or using a well-known director or principal cast. You can also power up your brand by selecting a topic that resonates with many large causes and constituencies. Walden Media’s Amazing Grace is an excellent example of this strategy. The producers leveraged the subject of abolition of slavery, a centuries-old issue, with more contemporary causes like the sex trafficking of women and children, bonded slavery to pay off indebtedness, ethnic cleansing in Africa, and Black History Month. The more of these brand assets you can employ in your film, the larger your potential audience. It also makes the marketing strategy more clear, since you have target groups to aim for.
If you are making a low budget, cause-oriented film, the theatrical route may not be the best option. One airing on a television network or national cable channel can attract more eyeballs than a limited theatrical release. Also, special interest films can often reach their greatest potential via organizations that support the cause.
Trying to attract a distributor seems at times like “Catch 22.” The distributor won’t commit until you finish the project, while the investors won’t commit until you have guaranteed distribution.
My advice is to work through this issue with “fear and trembling.” Producing a movie or TV program without a distribution partner in place is highly risky. I’ve seen too many wonderful projects come through our offices that never saw the light of day for lack of distribution.
The best option is to find a distributor (foreign or domestic) who will sign on as an equity partner; giving you guaranteed distribution in exchange for a share in the revenue. Giving up a piece of the pie at this stage may well be worth the price for getting your film made and into the marketplace.
Alas, not every film will win an Oscar, a Golden Globe or a Crystal Dove Seal. But, if it reaches its intended audience with the impact that you had first envisioned, you can congratulate yourself on a job well done!
Footnote: The Dove Foundation offers a comprehensive in-depth analysis of manuscripts, rough-cuts and finished films to help producers identify the most productive market segment and/or tailor their projects to maximize its impact on the intended audience. For details go to www.dove.org/producers.asp