10 Ways Filmmakers
Think Smart

 By Tim Barrow

My name is Tim Barrow and I’m an actor, writer and independent film producer.

Creativity and imagination are great assets for an indie filmmaker.

In an industry constantly in flux, one thing has changed noticeably in the last decade – filmmakers now have the chance to generate their own publicity and shape the destiny of their work. The digital revolution has shaken up every industry – music, art, film – and this is to artists’ immense benefit. Audiences across the spectrum now have the chance of viewing your work on multiple platforms, so you must take it to them – neither audiences nor the industry come calling. No-one will ring you and offer deals because no-one knows who you are. Think smart or your film will go nowhere.

1. Ask Tough Questions

Constantly ask questions – the answers will get your film on the road. Why make the film? How can it succeed? Who’s it for? Films are made for audiences to engage with, but there’s an almighty journey from making through to viewing. Ask tough questions at the beginning, and throughout the process, then there’ll be less surprises. If you cater for worst-case scenarios, then the worst cannot happen. And if you have to stand up in front of a hostile audience, you can defend the choices you made with sincerity and intelligence and pride.

2. Commercial Or Arthouse?

Of course your film is the exception that defies genre, but people will seek to categorise your work and they’ll start with: “Commercial” or “Art-house”? “Commercial” breaks down in genres such as Horror, Rom- Com, Thriller, Sci-Fi etc etc. “Art-house” is a lot looser. If you know the parameters you can pitch accordingly and play on expectations.  Art-house that enjoys commercial success is the Holy Grail. As the producers of The King’s Speech will tell you from their yacht in the Bahamas.

3. Find Your Platform

What’s the perfect platform for your film? If it’s a 4 minute short, YouTube or Raindance.tv? A script: Cannes? A fully-made feature: Leicester Square? How will you best launch your film upon the world? Hundreds of film festivals take place throughout the year – many niche ones may suit. Keep briefed by Withoutabox.com – target festivals, make contact, bring you and your work to people’s attention. There’s only one premiere, it has to be right. With Lyre’s new feature The Space Between, we decided to launch in Edinburgh, the film’s birthplace, with a series of screening throughout the city, finding as diverse audiences as we could. Self-distribution succeeded on a small scale with The Inheritance, so we’ll work on a larger scale this time.

4. Budget Your Success

People always ask about budget and they mean: How big or how small? Avatar: $300 million. The Inheritance: £5,000. Both budgets have massive advantages. A Scottish road movie made by first-timers simply for the love – can you make a feature for five grand, is it any good? Yeah, actually it won some awards, audiences & critics loved it. We were inspired by Christopher Nolan who made Following for £10,000 and Robert Rodriguez who made El Mariachi for $7,000 – and he shot on film!

5. Who Will Help?

So your aunties do the catering, Dad and Uncle Tony have loaned their cars for transport, the crew are staying at mates’ houses, now you need to sweet-talk the guy who owns the castle near your village and hope he’ll enjoy seeing his house featured on film. Call in all favours – with your first film you have a clean slate and no excuses. People will be DELIGHTED to be involved. Favours can be returned by giving credits and free tickets to screenings a year later. People have unexpected and unique things to offer. Charlie Belleville’s dad is a blacksmith and we shot scenes from The Inheritance in his blacksmith’s workshop, which lends those scenes perfect authenticity. A whole art department and 20 grand couldn’t have created a better environment.

6. Long-term Goals

What is your film? A calling card? A revolution to shake up society? A promo to bankroll your dream feature? Your objectives can be achieved – exposure, money, a foot on the ladder, whatever they are – but you must know the scale you’re working to. You’ll suffer short-term in order to succeed in the long-run, but 10 years of poverty, strife and low-budget film-making  in order to kick-start a career is time well spent if by the time you’re 60 you are running a studio. It’s possible to keep making films until you die – there’s a lot of time to play with.

7. Retain Control

Control of your film is essential in order to do what you want with it. Elements are discounted by unpredictability and luck, but by retaining artistic control over your project you can shape its destiny. And when you do finally see the profits, they can be recouped by you, not lost in the hierarchy of distribution. Be very careful who you give control of your work to and why.

8. Listen To The Elders

Knowledge is power. Seek out people who have done what you’re attempting to – advice is free, or bought for coffee or beer. Experienced pros look for up-and-coming talent to champion. It’s hard to get going – the industry appears terrifying and impenetrable – but everyone starts somewhere. Get good at being punctual, polite, generous and making tea. Starting from the bottom, there’s nothing to lose and only one way to go.

9. Production Value

Dress your work with as much substance, style, wonder as you possibly can. The better it feels, the higher the production value – and your film wants to be as valuable as possible. Cranes are expensive to hire, so film out of a sun roof travelling at high speed or from office balconies. Visuals are an obvious place to maximise your style, but sound offers great possibilities too. Mix your sound design as imaginatively, wildly or subtly as you can. Dan Johnson, who mixed both my films, is pure gold. Pack the soundtrack with brilliant songs and themes. The fuller an experience your film is made, the better its reception, and the higher the production value.

10. Pace Yourself

Film-making saps energy, strength and belief. Breaks for contemplation and peace are essential. Learn how best to work, the most efficient use of your energy. When you have a team of people working for you – on set, or in a studio, as you may do one day – how do you get the best out of them? Just as you distribute your budget wisely, you have to pace your own energy for a 2, 3, 4 year-long effort. Film’s a marathon, not a sprint so prepare to win the war, not just random, brilliant battles. And when your independent break-out feature hits the right spot, your star is in the ascendant and people are queuing up to work with the latest hot-shot talent, you’ll need a vast amount of energy, faith and stamina to sustain the momentum and get to the next level.

The Inheritance

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About The Author

Tim BArrowBorn in Edinburgh and trained as an actor at Drama Centre London, Tim Barrow has worked extensively in Scottish theatre and screen work includes Taggart; Children Of The Dead End and Richard Jobson’s New Town Killers.

He wrote, produced and acted in The Inheritance - winner of the Raindance Award at 2007 British Independent Film Awards and nominated Best UK Feature at Raindance.

He was nominated Best Producer at 2008 BAFTA Scotland New Talent Awards. The Inheritance toured the festival circuit and is now available to buy on DVD.

Tim founded Lyre Productions as a platform for future films. His second feature The Space Between, his directorial debut, has its world premiere at Edinburgh's Filmhouse on Thursday 10 March, 2011

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10 Ways Filmmakers Think Smart