Film production can be broken down into 5 essential stages: 1) Development, 2) Pre-production, 3) Production, 4) Post Production, 5) Marketing & Distribution. In today’s installment we’ll have a closer look at Development and the two major functions carried out at this stage: Manuscript Development & Sourcing Funds
1) Script Development
Acquiring a screenplay or developing an idea that can be turned into a movie can be initiated in a number of ways and by a number of people:
The film producer
A producer is a person who facilitates and enables the making of films. He or she:
- Finds an idea that can be turned into a film,
- source funding to make the film,
- hire key crew and cast with the necessary skills to realize the film,
- supervise the making of the film and make sure the production doesn’t use more time and or money than allotted,
- develop a plan as to how s/he will market and sell the film to audiences
The first step for the producer is to find an idea that can be made into a film. S/he can find ideas from many sources: books, real people, remake of old movies, his/her own original ideas or ideas from scriptwriters or directors who have submitted their work to the producer.
If the producer decides to develop a film idea based on a book, a true story or material taken from a third party he/she must purchase the rights to do so from the copyright holders of such works BEFORE they start making the movie.
A copyright is a certification of ownership. When someone creates a work of art (book, music, movie, painting, whatever) they immediately own the copyright to their work, but to PROVE their ownership many (most?) creators register their work with a governing body who in turn issues a copyright certificate that confirms their ownership. So let’s say I wrote a book and you’d like to make a short film based on my book, you have to buy the rights from me (my written permission & perhaps that of my publisher too) BEFORE you can go into production on your film.
I’m not sure how registering copyright in Jamaica works, but in many countries there is a governing body that issues copyright certificates. Many creatives also register with international bodies, such as the Writer’s Guild of America if you’re a script writer.
As the producer of the film it’s your job to find out what the rules and regulations are when it comes to copyright and follow them. If you go ahead and make a film based on someone else’s life or copyrighted material (book, remake of old movie, music, whatever) without permission you won’t be able to submit your film to film festivals because you’ve infringed on other people’s copyright. You may also be sued, especially if you make money from your film. This is of EXTREME importance so do not dismiss this.
INSIGHT: An important note on using MUSIC in filmmaking:
I see a lot of Jamaican short films with the music of popular local artistes featured in them and I’ve often wondered if the filmmaker had permission, or even asked, to use the music. I’d bet money that most haven’t.
If you’re making a film just for you & your friends you can probably get away with using the music for free, but the minute you start distributing that film (on Youtube, on Vimeo, on your personal website etc) you’ve infringed on the owners of the music’s copyright and can risk getting sued or heavily fined.
Something else to keep in mind: if the artiste is signed to a record label, you have to buy the rights (a price for each second of music you play in your film) to use the music from the record label, NOT the artiste. The artiste can give you ‘the go-ahead’, but you still have to go through their recording company, or a local governing body that represents them.
If a recording artiste is unsigned, and even if you’re friends or bosom buddies with them or any other owner of the copyright, make sure you have a written agreement that states explicitly that they’ve given you (full) rights to use their story and or music as the basis of your film or in your film. And ideally, if you can afford it, have an Entertainment lawyer oversee the process.
I wouldn’t recommend using copyrighted material as inspiration for or in your films if you’re just starting out because it requires time and money, both of which you don’t have a lot of so allocate your resources wisely.
Use original ideas you’ve come up with yourself. It’s cheaper and it’s your own. Nobody can sue or reject you for using it.
So let’s say you have your (original) film idea, it’s time to write your screenplay. Either you can write the screenplay yourself (again the cheapest alternative IF you have the talent for such) OR you can hire someone to write a screenplay for you. Be prepared to compensate your scriptwriter in some way. Ideally with money. Get into the habit of paying people, if and when you can. If you can’t pay your scriptwriter money, pay him/her with other favours (offer deferred payment — money they can look forward to IF your film makes a profit, take them to dinner, beach, farrin … whatever).
Negotiate a good deal where the both of you benefit somehow. Remember filmmaking is a “people” profession. Don’t just think about yourself.
If you’re considerate of your crew and their needs, they will hold a great deal of goodwill toward you and will likely be willing to help you out in any way they can on later projects (cheaper rates, introducing you to someone who can fund your film etc. ).
OK, so that’s the role of the producer and how they initiate the development process, but even though the producer is integral to the making of the film from start to finish, and everything always comes back to him or her, there are also other people who can initiate the development process. Let’s have a look at:
The freelance script writer
– In Hollywood those big film studios who control the industry have entire departments consisting ONLY scriptwriters. In indie filmmaking, most people are FREELANCERS, including script writers. Freelancers aren’t attached to a production company or TV network, but are used by these businesses on a ‘as-needed’ basis. Freelance script writers often write a screenplay and then try to sell it to producers. If they know the producer the process is very informal — they’ll tell the producer about an idea for a film over beer, dinner or while lounging on a couch somewhere. In cases where they don’t know the producer they’ll send a formal query letter outlining who they are and why the producer might be interested to purchase their script. Attached to the query letter is a synopsis of the screenplay and or a TREATMENT. If the producer is interested, they’ll call the scriptwriter in for a meeting and they’ll negotiate onward from there.
INSIGHT: What is a TREATMENT?
Whether you’re a professional script writer or not as a filmmaker, especially if you write your own scripts, you should know what a TREATMENT is. Most of us who use a computer have come across a zip file. A zip file is a compressed (smaller) version of a bigger file. Well, the treatment is the same. It is a compressed version of your screenplay. It is generally longer and more detailed than a synopsis, and if you’re a Writer-Director preparing the treatment you can include details of your directorial style. Your treatment should include all 3-acts of your story — beginning, middle and end — but in a shorter format than your screenplay. Screenplays for feature films are normally between 90-120 pages long. A treatment will be considerably shorter than this. Depending on who you ask, the length of a treatment is anywhere from 3-4 pages to 10-15 pages. When I write a treatment I tend to stick to about 3-4-5 pages. Treatments are not normally written for the vast majority short films.
Directors are story tellers. They engage their audience, not only with a great story, but also a series of stunning, awe inspiring moving pictures; and because they’re storytellers they’re predisposed to write down their stories on paper first before bringing them to screen.
In indie filmmaking, once a director has written a script he/she is passionate about turning into a movie, if he isn’t already collaborating with a producer in his own production company, he can either take on the role of producer himself/herself (source is own funding, hire his own crew, market and sell the film on his own etc) or hire a freelance producer to do this for him. Bear in mind, however, that not all freelance producers specialize in sourcing funds. Once a producer is hired, a production company is formed (either the director does this on his own or in collaboration with the producer) to take care of the above mentioned administrative and practical tasks.
Whichever category you fall into, the script represents an essential part of the film making process. When I was in film school the director of a short film I was producing said to me, ‘We don’t need a script.’ I was like “Are you mad? Of course, we need a script! How is everybody going to know what to do otherwise?” It’s a valid question.
Sure, the director can just tell people what to do, but not only will that create chaos and misunderstandings, it’s also unprofessional. Have a script at all times. Everyone involved in the filmmaking process needs one to get their work done effectively.
Another thing to remember about scripts is that they must be written with professional script writing software. In Hollywood, the most common script writing software appears to be Final Draft, a product of Apple. If you can afford a Mac with Final Draft on it, great! However, Final Draft is not for bruk pocket people so many indie filmmakers take advantage of the more economical Celtx, a FREE script writing software you can download here.
Proper script formating:
In the film business, there’s a certain way film manuscripts are written. There are always slight variations on what’s the correct way to format a script depending on where in the world you are. In Hollywood they have their own way and in Europe there’s another way still. The differences are usually minor, on a whole. Since I live in Europe and am mostly involved in the film community here, I tend to use this script format guide from the BBC.
Now let’s move on to Part 3b of the Development stage: Sourcing funds for the making of your film!