The artistic and business battlefield that is Hollywood is not for the unprepared. But those who heeded the industry pros at Burbank International Film Festival’s second annual offering of free, straight-talking seminars got a leg up. They walked away with ammo and armor for the struggle to gain and hold a precious piece of cinematic territory. High tech can also be an empowering weapon, but only if you know where to aim.
Listen to MICK GARRIS, who directed all the Stephen King miniseries from pilot to network, as he sets forth the dilemma of DIY-meets-Hollywood: “The great thing about this technology is that everyone can make a movie. The awful thing about this technology is that everyone can make a movie.”
But only a few make movies that many others want to see.
Some of those cinematic gems are waiting for the other side of summer, September 9 to 13, when the Burbank International Film Festival will return to the AMC Theatres in downtown Burbank.
BIFF’s upcoming film fest will be a nice counterpoint to BIFF’s industry “boot camp” at Woodbury University last April. And whether you were listening to a panel on producing that film or winning that role or writing that smash screenplay, the industry veterans made it clear that “suffering for one’s art” is not just fancy talk. It’s the hard tinsel town truth.
Mick again: “There’s nothing greater for a creative project than fear and trepidation and feeling like you’re still 25 with a lot to prove.” But even then, you’re not off the hook. “You can’t do the best suspense when you’re interrupted by a conversation about incontinence. ‘Scare the crap out of you’ is supposed to be a metaphor.”
Or heed Director/Producer CHRIS OLEN RAY, who has 53 movies under his belt including Megashark and Sharknado: “Making film is hard. Working 20-hour days for week after week is commonplace. You have to love it or you’re crazy.”
There’s more good news/bad news. On the one hand, Mick observes that “we’re in a more calcified world of comic book sequels” when it comes to big budget films. On the other hand, indie filmmakers have more control than ever.
According to LINDA NELSON, who started her production company in 2000 and is on her fourth feature film, “Now is the best opportunity filmmakers have ever had to make and distribute movies. Even films of $20,000 can be successful. That was the budget of Fray, a great film about a troubled soldier. And you don’t have to make 15 to 20 shorts before making a feature.”
Linda started her own studio because the distribution contracts were “awful,” so she started her own studio. (Even with honest contracts, expect around 20% to go to the producer.) Mick became a producer “just to protect myself.” Tweet to indie filmmakers: you can release your own movie. But if you do rely on a distributor, then do your homework and go to Iamdbpro. Check out the distributor’s past clients. And above all, don’t let yourself be kept in the dark. Insist on getting a quarterly report.
But however much you prepare, you eventually just have to dive into the water. As Chris put it, “You’re going to learn the answer to all your questions on your first film.”
Actors have their own daunting odds to deal with. BIFF President and panelist JEFF RECTOR offered the following example. Say you’re auditioning for a five-line role, perhaps as a police officer. The casting director will get a thousand submissions, out of which 30 will be selected for an audition, out of which six-eight will be called back. Six-eight out of a thousand.
The elimination of the other 992 begins with the head shot. Casting Executive GERALD WEBB (who also acts and owns two production companies) looks at the head shots first, then the resume. He showed the audience what he typically confronts when picking out headshots, about 16 of them on his screen at a time. “You have a millisecond for me to click ‘yes’ or ‘no’ period. Scroll your own head shots like this to see what pops out.”
At Gerald’s invitation, several dozen in the audience submitted their own headshots for his quick evaluation. :“You’d be shocked how many headshots are slightly out of focus,” said Gerald. And indeed, some were. Other headshots did not make the actor’s face the most important thing. About 25% of the head shots that Gerald evaluated were of professional quality.
So, with the help of your headshot and resume (and maybe a website, which needs to be better than your Facebook or other social media site) you’ve been called for an audition. You’re now among the 30 out of that initial 1000. How do you make it to the charmed eight out of a 1000 that are called back?
Jeff advises, “Train. Go in. Do the best you can. Forget about it.” The panelists had cold reads done by several audience members to make “the best they can” better. (To learn what helpful hints they received, along with other pithy advice, please see the feature article on Gerald Webb.)
The panelists discussing actors and managers affirmed the great importance of having a great demo reel. KATHYRN BOOLE, Literary Agent at STG Literary, offered this rule of thumb: a minute and a half of an actor’s best work without any other actor in it. The best of the best work should appear at the beginning and the end of the reel. Jeff used his own demo trailer as an example of how to, in a short period of time, convey the range and depth of your acting work.
Jeff champions the specific over the general. “You’re a brand. You’re unique. You’re not just a 30-year-old guy who’s a character actor.”
PHIL BROCK, Theatrical Agent and Manager at Studio Talent Group, pointed out that that “we managers are your non-paid, on-spec employees.” And how should actors keep their managers up-to-date? Kathryn says, “Be persistent but not annoyingly persistent. KARIM MUHAMMAD at The Polygon Group adds, “I’d rather have actors say ‘I’m in this play’ rather than sending me picture after picture.”
Storyboarder JAKE TODD ANDERSON observes “everyone seems to have to shoot in 30 days with less than five million.” And while it’s not his job to direct the film, Jake says he can definitely help. From someone who has storyboarded most, if not all, of the Coen brothers’ films, that’s an understatement.
Jake goes into the minds of the directors “with a flashlight, sort of trips on the furniture and asks them, ‘is it like this or that?’” He envies the “comic book guys who can do the fine art.” Jake, like hopefully the directors he works with, has “always got to be thinking toward the image.”
Jake notes that “the fire-breathing dragon” is the schedule. The challenge is to not let the schedule shove aside “the creative prize.” Filmmakers can easily fall “under the spell”. You’ll do anything to get your movie made.
Notes Jake, “All you can do is make new mistakes.” Here’s some old ones to avoid: “Stick to fundamental coverage. Not every shot can be an overhead shot.” And be sure to tame the schedule dragon before it torches the quality of your work.
“Storyboarding makes the lighting and camera people feel safe,” adds writer/director Shane Black. And he should know: Jack is storyboarding his latest film, Nice Guys. (To learn more about Shane and his thoughts on writing and directing, please see the feature article.)
A big kudos to BIFF for once again having given Hollywood hopefuls a chance to get real information from real industry pros. Here’s the roster
Phil Brock, Theatrical Agent and Manager at Studio Talent Group
Kathryn Boole, Literary Agent at STG Literary
Monique Strong at Power Talent Group
Karim Muhammad at The Polygon Group
Gerald Webb, Writer/Producer/Casting Executive
Jeff Rector, Actor and BIFF President
Mick Garris, Writer/Director/Producer
Chris Olen Ray, Director/Producer
Gerald Webb, Writer/Producer/Casting Director
Linda Nelson , Distributor at Indie Rights Distribution
J.Todd Anderson, Actor/Director/Storyboard Artist
Moderated by Steve Wilder, Actor/Writer
For questions or more information email BIFF at email@example.com or visit the website www.burbankfilmfest.org