Category Archives: Pre-production

EPILOGUE: Lessons In Microbudget Filmmaking, Part 2

Michelle Koerssen (left), our 2nd AD converses with our fearless Production Manager, Dagny Thompson.

Photo by Sharon Mendonca

BY SHAWN WHITNEY

Excuse me if the post below is a little delirious. It’s late and I’ve been working on this as I sync sound to video in order to get clean files to our editor. My brain has gone numb, even using PluralEyes, a program that does the synching, mostly, automatically.

Making a feature film is an intense process for everyone involved for different reasons. You, as a producer, will have to juggle an enormous number of responsibilities to make sure that the organizational side of the shoot comes together to allow the art side to function. Hopefully you’ve also been involved in the art side – story editing the script during development and pre-production, discussing the shot list with the director, conversing with the department heads during the shoot to see how things are going, etc. Below are some of the things we learned as producers from shooting ABNY. The list is rather long but the thing is that it’s not even a full list. These are just the top 15 or so that came to mind as I sat down to write this.

1)   Make sure you have a producer or production manager on set. If you are a producer-director you definitely don’t want to be worrying about location permits and whether there’s enough coffee for the crew when your DP wants to discuss your shot list and your actors are ready to block. You need someone reliable and organized. We had a fabulous production manager who couldn’t be on set every day but, in her place, we had an equally fabulous on-set coordinator who also made sure that everyone was fed with great lunches and snacks. We never worried about the behind the scenes details during the shoot. Those details can break you. A separate producer or production manager can also discipline you if you’re the director/producer – you are always tempted to spend “just a little bit more” for that gadget or light or gel or… The PM or producer must know when to say no firmly to the director.

2)   If possible have both a 1st and 2nd AD – especially if you decide to work with union, pro talent. Then there is a lot of paperwork to fill out and keep track of. You want your 1st on top of getting the shoot as a whole moving and staying on schedule. You don’t want them getting talent to sign in and out or dealing with their requests, preparing call sheets for the next day, etc.

3)   Make sure you have a sizeable amount of petty cash for the PM or on-set coordinator or yourself to deal with whatever needs might arise.

4)   In a similar vein – assume that your budget is off on the low side by a significant amount and don’t freak out when it is. Particularly if this is your first feature film – and/or the first feature of whomever is doing your budget – they won’t know that you will have to spend $100 to buy ND filters for the matte box or $30 to buy black felt paper (roofing paper) to black out the windows when you are shooting day for night. Or how about extra bulbs for that awesome lighting kit you bought – there’s an extra $100. And you might even buy things that you don’t end up using – we paid $50 for QR Slate on the iPad thinking that it would be a very useful way to slate all our shots and add metadata to them. It didn’t work for us. That $50 is gone forever. Crew will get parking tickets – what do you say when they’ve driven in to work on your shoot for free at 6 am? (We got four parking tickets at $30 pop). What about insurance? You’re going to go over. Get used to the idea.

5)   Speaking of insurance: Get insurance. I know, insurance companies are a parasitic scab on the ass of society. I agree completely. But if you borrowed someone’s 5D Mark III or your buddy’s car and you drive the car over the camera and then, panicking about the camera, drive the car into a pole – you don’t want to be without insurance. You will also need insurance if you want to go legit and shoot on city property with permits – in Toronto you need $2 million liability, which cost us, I believe, around $500. If you use union actors (at least in Canada) you will also need to get special insurance for them, in case of injury of disfigurement (I’m not sure about the disfigurement but I can imagine that was probably covered). That was another $100 or so.

6)   While I’m on the depressing bureaucratic side of filmmaking, let’s talk paperwork. You can do everything guerilla style. Lots of people do. But know that you risk everything if you get busted by the police or a neighbor complains about that fight scene on the front lawn of your parents’ house that you keep on re-taking in order to get just the right uppercut. If you want to get permits for shooting it will mean dedicating one or two people to dealing with it. We had to go door-to-door on each street where we were shooting to get the signatures of the neighbours, agreeing that we could shoot on the street. We also had to leaflet every house on the street to let them know. We probably would have been ok with only getting one of the four permits we ultimately got (including having to re-leaflet after an exterior shoot day off of one street had to be re-scheduled due to high winds). But Dagny, our PM, felt that we should avoid the nightmare scenario where you get shut down halfway through a shoot – you have to pay all your actors and you have all that food that’s going to rot and all that borrowed equipment that you have to return at the end of the week. Can you say scenario from hell?

7)   Speaking of paperwork: if you decide to go with union actors be prepared to add substantial expenses and paperwork. In Canada you will have to incorporate, join the CMPA (the producers’ association) and pay administrative fees to both the union and the CMPA ($400 to the CMPA who do exactly diddly squat for you and probably “administer” your contract with ACTRA by having their underpaid secretarial staff drag your contract from the e-mail folder into the TIP contract folder and then release the mouse button). Incorporation alone will cost you probably $1500-$2000 (we paid about $700 because Kathryn’s father is a lawyer and did the paperwork pro bono). You will also have to deal with the added hassle (and expense) at the end of the year of filing a tax return for your corporation and – don’t forget – you must keep all of your expenses and any income or investment in your corporation separate from your personal income and expenses. As far as the government is concerned, a corporation is a legal person and therefore you are now keeping books for that “person.” I sort of get ACTRA’s insistence that production companies that hire their members under the microbudget category must join the CMPA and set up a corporation. They want to deal with professionals who won’t stiff their members. But it’s a big deterrent to using professional actors and quite intrusive – and I say this as someone who is very pro-union.

8)   Good food keeps your unpaid crew happy. No pizza and twinkies folks. That’s just wrong. These people are giving you their time for free or cheaply. Besides, high carb lunches will fill stomachs and then 45 minutes later, your crew will have a carb crash that will ruin your afternoon productivity. It’s more expensive to avoid high carb meals but it’s worth it if you want to get your days and avoid crabby, sleepy crew barking at each other or slipping off to nap.

9)   Twelve days in a row was hellish. The reason we did it was because it’s easier to get people to donate two workweeks than it is to get them to donate three. Also, we didn’t want a cast and crew of 15-20 people in our house (the primary location) for three weeks, which would have been hard on not only Kathryn and I but also on our three-year old daughter. But, next time, I’d try to shoot for 15 days with two weekends in between so that people can rest up and not burn out. That will mean budgeting at least honorariums for the crew and adding locations so that we don’t overstay our welcome in any one place. That may mean a smaller crew. This is a goal, not a principle, and I reserve the right to ignore it depending on budget.

10)                  Crew size. Not too big and not too small. If you don’t have enough people you will constantly be scrambling and your director will be moving lights instead of coming up with blocking or working with actors. We had some of that, especially when we were shooting in the cramped third floor of our house in 35 degree Celsius weather. We kept everyone out of the heatbox that we didn’t need, in order to not pass out from heat exhaustion. But it also meant we had no gaffer and no PAs. There were also times that I think we could have been smaller and nimbler. But it’s a judgment call.

11)                  Get photos of the shoot. We had Sharon Mendonca show up on several of the 12 days of shooting and get pictures from behind the scenes of cast and crew. Besides the production diary blog posts, the photos were a key element in building interest in the film. In fact, the photos have attracted as many hits as the posts themselves, if not more. They will also be useful in our electronic press kit. I only wished we’d given Sharon some direction – there’s lots of awesome pics of the cast on set but perhaps not enough of the crew, which are also important. That’s not her fault: the cast in their wardrobe and doing their thing, is inherently more interesting than the directors standing around chatting with the DP or the 1st AD. Try to have a videographer as well. We had Carlos but we weren’t paying him and he was only able to show up twice to set.

12)                  Make sure your director always gets her day. ‘Nuff said.

13)                   Start publicity as soon as possible. This is tough, especially with a microbudget that barely has the cash to make the film. But chances are you won’t sell the film to some distributor and chances are only slightly better that you’ll get into a festival like TIFF or Sundance that will improve the possibility of your selling (though, even still, only a minority of films that make it into festivals actually get picked up). That means that building buzz and getting distribution to recoup investment is up to you. Hell, that’s part of what this blog is about. It’s why we have a Facebook page and a twitter account (much neglected the last two weeks). Building an audience is a job for more than one person and it doesn’t happen overnight. We’re finding that out. And I think almost everyday: to recoup the $20K that we invested in cash into ABNY, we will have to sell about 2,000 DVDs at a $10/DVD profit. The 206 likes we presently have on our Facebook page ain’t gonna cut it. On the bright side, we have 206 likes and the film hasn’t even gone into post-production yet. Ghosts With Shit Jobs – another Toronto lo-fi sci-fi film, which is doing quite well with a movie that they made for $5,000, has just under 800 Facebook fans. I think we need to get at least several thousand Facebook fans and a similar number of Twitter followers (we have 520 right now). There will be more to come on the question of marketing and distribution as we proceed.

14)                  More paperwork (blame it on capitalism – seriously). Make sure you don’t shoot anything with copyrighted labels on it unless you get clearance first. Make sure that your locations are cleared of all recognizable brands. We needed a lot of Apple stuff in ABNY just because it was the way it was written (I’m an Apple geek, what can I say?) and we had a contact through a contact. Apple gave us clearance to use their stuff onscreen (as long as there was no nudity and no criminal acts committed using their gear). They were pretty cool about it – many companies are not. It would suck to have to throw out all the shots from your climactic scene because somebody was drinking a can of Coke and someone else was eating a Snicker’s bar. Speaking of copyright – make sure that you get clearances for music: you need a master license and a synch license, if you’re using some already composed music. If you’re having the music scored specifically for the film you need a composer’s license (I think that’s what it’s called). You can find some on the Independent Film & Video Fund website or just google them. All these things – along with location agreements and releases, etc. are must-haves if you do hope to ever sell your film to a distributor.

15)                   Keep good books, have good deal memos for crew, etc. The less ambiguity there is in your relationship with people the better. And the more clear it is how the money was spent and who gets the money if any comes in, the less likely there is to be fights and even legal disputes afterwards. Everybody wants to be cool and casual about money, especially on a shoot where you’re all focused on the art. The more this stuff is clear, accounted for and in the open, the more you can deal with the art.

16)                  Good Lord, there’s probably another dozen that come to mind. Producing a feature film is a complicated thing. Kudos to you for taking it on and being part of creating a piece of art that contributes to the betterment of humanity or something. Try to be organized and try to actually enjoy the shoot once it gets going.

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Filed under About BNY, Micro budget, Pre-production, Production Diary

Day 10: Feel The Heat

Photos by SHARON MENDONCA

BY SHAWN WHITNEY

No, I’m not being figurative. This has nothing to do with the approaching end of our shoot. It has everything to do with the heatwave we are experiencing in Toronto. Oh. My. God. Hot: holy-hell-Satan’s-oven kind of hot.

It slowed us down and cost us focus. Manuel (Santiago) couldn’t stop sweating, forced to wear a suit in a house with no air conditioning on the first floor, a bunch of lights and too many people in one room. He must have lost a couple of pounds in liquid by the looks of his shirt and the water pouring off his forehead (ironically, sweating probably makes Manuel more able to deal with the heat than those of use who were sweating less. Growing up in Cuba has its benefits during heat waves). I can’t say for certain about anybody else but I know that the heat definitely made me more cranky than usual. Of course I’m tired. We’re ten days in without a day off.

Luckily, we had shot a scene scheduled for today yesterday. Plus we decided to cut a scene we felt was redundant and another had been cut from the schedule after my final revision to the script. It meant that we got our day, otherwise – particularly after a slow and excruciating morning of struggling to get sufficient coverage – we would have fallen behind. But… we are still on schedule, though tomorrow will be a 9 1/2 page day in the same heat. And we’re on the top floor, in the attic. (Note to self: put the window A/C unit upstairs first thing in the morning.)

I’m deeply impressed that we have gotten this far in, in this heat and nobody has lost their shit on anybody else. No yelling. Nothing thrown. Nobody stormed off set and refused to come back. We are being tested by the gods of indie filmmaking and we are whupping ass imho. We even managed to send off a hard drive to our editor, Greg, in Richmond, BC today. It helps to have awesome, professional cast. Today we had Elizabeth Whitmere on set for a short scene with Manuel. Even though she must have been melting in her undertaker suit, she had an amazing sense of humour, positive attitude, a razor sharp performance and great focus. Truly a pleasure to work with.

In other news, childcare has been an endless source of drama, giving me one insight into why women are so excluded from directing. Kathryn and I are both directing this and we have a three-year old. I can’t just forget about the question of childcare during the shoot. We have to both work it out together (though Kathryn is more resourceful and has more potential support than I do). Her parents took Bea last weekend for four days, which was a big relief (though we missed her dearly) and then we had our friends Holly & Dietrich take Bea for the night last night and after work today, until we were done shooting at 8pm tonight (H&D’s daughter, Zhadie, is Bea’s BFF – they spend four days a week together with a shared nanny). But we were calling around, trying to beg someone to watch her for the last three hours of the day – and we still haven’t found childcare for Friday all day.

Now, these challenges are existing for us on a short shoot of only 12 days with mostly 9-10 hour workdays and only three night shoots. Imagine life for people who work in the mainstream industry where 12 hour days are the norm with many more nights. And if you want to climb the ladder to director or director of photography, you have to put in years and years, decades even, of this lifestyle. Of course, we all know who usually gets stuck with childcare – women. How is it possible for women to have kids and try to be successful? So, besides the old boys club and the prevailing, sexist, attitudes about women that hold them back from entering directing roles in larger numbers, they are also hobbled very materially by the challenges of childcare. Co-directing with my wife has made me very aware of this.

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Filed under About BNY, Micro budget, Pre-production, Production Diary

The ABNY Cast

Introducing the cast of A Brand New You…

Manuel Rodriguez plays the lead actor, Santiago Morales

Freya Ravensbergen plays Laura, Santiago’s roommate

Clinton Lee Pontes plays Murray, Santiago’s landlord and disgraced biologist.

Vanessa Burns plays Natalie, a friend of Laura

Dalal Badr plays Viviana, Santiago’s dead wife.

Edsson Morales plays Phil, Santiago’s lawyer

Barbara de la Fuente plays Marny, Laura’s ex mother-in-law

Charles Burton plays Marny’s husband

William Ellis plays a nerdy dude

Scott McCullouch plays Professor Moritz

Liz Whitmere plays the Undertaker

Toni Ellwand plays the Real Estate Agent

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T-Minus 21 Hours!! The Final Countdown!

BY SHAWN WHITNEY

It’s been well over a year since I started writing the script and longer since Kathryn and I developed the idea. It’s been through God knows how many drafts – with the extremely able help of Larisa Gutmanis as our story editor. We’ve got all our crew, we’re fully cast and we have a lab in our livingroom.

Of course there have been hiccups but given how small is our budget and how few paid crew there are (i.e. none) we have done remarkably well, imho.

Yesterday, as Dagny (our PM) did a bunch of last minute organizing and e-mails in my dining room, I worked on final revisions to the locked script (I reserve the right to change the final script several more times during shooting – though I’d prefer not to). I finished this draft somewhere between midnight and 1am as I sat on the Roma Restaurant, around the corner from my house, and drank red wine. If you have to work on revisions for 14 hours straight, I highly recommend introducing red wine after the 9th hour or so. But now it’s done! And I feel good about the changes made to the script based upon two readings with actors and feedback on the last draft from Reece Crothers (an amazing writer and one of our camera operators) and my director friend Boris Rodriguez (whose art house horror film, Eddie, just screened as part of the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival).

I’ve also gotten some wonderful last minute advice to prepare us for the shoot. Isabel Gomez-Moriana, who is in charge of project development & marketplace at the Canadian Film Centre, made the important point: make sure you get variety in your performances so that you don’t discover in the editing room that it’s all one note. And make sure to leave time for camera coverage of important emotional/story beats. Another director friend of mine, Adrian Wills, also had some excellent advice about prioritizing and knowing what can be cut if you have to cut scenes because time is tight. Boris has pushed me again and again to focus on the creative, on the story, on the look and to let others do the organizational, producerly work (well, that didn’t work out so well since we are, shall we say, tight in the labour department).

Today, after making copies of the new draft and picking up Alex, our DP’s, camera gear, it will be off to have an art department meeting and decorate our first set a few blocks away from here (Thanks, Toby! We won’t wreck your place, we promise). Then there is a meeting with the assistant directors (who keep the set sane and organized) and production manager & co-ordinator. That meeting will also be about the paperwork that has to be filled in. Lots of paperwork. Each film that is made produces its own forest of paperwork. Finally, there will be a key crew meeting at 4:30 today. Unfortunately, Kathryn the co-director, had two shoots this weekend, booked long in advance and can’t make that meeting. But she and I are totally in synch and we’ve been in regular contact over Skype and phone this weekend.

It will be fine. I expect the first few days to have some more hiccups (have the actors received their sides, have the contracts gone out, where’s the toilet paper…etc) but soon we will into the groove and setting a pace to run this marathon. I’m hoping to take a few moments to share the highlights of each day. But it could get crazy. No promises!

Wish us “Merde!”.

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T-Minus 4 Days: Final Details

It’s definitely the final countdown as we’re heading into the last weekend before we go to camera. We’re dealing with last minute details and starting the process of setting up!
The first thing that we had to do was pay a visit to ACTRA, go over final details, get a tutorial on the various forms that we and the actors have to fill out and submit and answer some questions about conditions on set. We also had to supply a bond with the full amount owing to pay the actors – ACTRA will then disperse pay cheques to the actors according to the time sheets that we supply. This turned out to be a bit of an issue because we discovered that we will have to pay overtime to any actors who work beyond five days without two consecutive days off – 150% on day 6 and 200% on day 7. We had submitted our “day out of days” sheet, which lists what actors are on set on which days, but the overtime had been missed. Not a big deal but there was a moment when a confused reading of the IPA (union contract) led to a belief that the actors’ rates would rise to 300% and stay there for the duration of the shoot. That would have gotten very expensive – but Indra, a senior steward, came in and cleared up the confusion and saved us a few grand in the process. Whew.

After that we had to rush back to the house to meet Len, who was there to set up the lab in our living room. You can say that Len is on top of the details: he even had screws and diodes of various types to lay in clumps on one of the work benches to make it look like Murray (our scientist/landlord) had just been working then got up and left to go make a sandwich. Len’s a fascinating guy and splits his time between designing “real” things in the world and designing and building sets. He has a contract with the Toronto Fire Dept to design a device to rescuing people injured in the subway. Generally, if someone is hurt on the tracks, four or five fire fighters/paramedics have to go into the tunnel to carry out the injured, with the danger that someone will trip on the tracks. Len designed a portable trolley that fits on the tracks so that only one paramedic is necessary to push the injured person down the tracks and out of the tunnels. Back at the station, the trolley folds up into a large suitcase that is portable and can be put back on the fire truck. Anyway, there are some final touches to add to the lab, including gear that we’re renting on Monday and which Len will deliver at that time. This set was our biggest single expense other than actors, costing us a little over $4000. An awesome deal as far as we’re concerned – the lab is very important to the story and so we wanted to make sure it looked good. We were probably thinking of the smash indie hit Bellflower from 2011, which had a budget of under $20k and, according to the filmmakers, most of that went on the fire-breathing muscle car.

Our daugher Bea explores the lab

Finally, in the evening, we had our camera and audio test meeting with Alex, our DP, Jeff (1st AC), and Zoe Mapp, our sound recordist. It was a very important chance to set up pretty much everything, test out the quality of the lights and figure out our workflow. We’d bought a copy of QRSlate ($50) from the Apple app store as an alternative to an analog, wooden slate. It got a solid review on NoFilmSchool as a way to simply organize your files to prepare them for post. Um, not so much. We’re recording sound separately and also shooting with two cameras a lot of the time, which adds another layer of complication. The beep that provides a sound mark for syncing the audio and video lasts over several frames without the benefit of a linked motion. When the sticks on a classic clapper snap, you have the motion leading up to that sharp, cracking sound to provide a guide for syncing up the sound file. With QRSlate there’s just a short flash that isn’t the same length of the sound and isn’t itself sharp enough because the screen doesn’t go instantaneously black afterwards but, rather, fades out. Jeff was not at all happy with it – Jeff works as an assistant editor at a post house in his day job. I think that we’ll have to revisit this marking and workflow again Monday morning; there may be an element of QRSlate being new and unfamiliar at play here, though dealing with multiple cameras is a bit clunky. But the important thing is that the D7000 produced some sexy images with our cheapo lighting kit on a very basic set-up without any colour correction. Manuel, our co-producer/lead actor, was at the house for a wardrobe meeting with Zuzana, our key wardrobe, and to check out the camera/audio test. HE stood in front of the camera and shared the truth about a deep and secret relationship that he’d never told the world before. Check it out below.

A Man & His Beloved Seahorse from Shawn Whitney on Vimeo.

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Filed under About BNY, Gear, Pre-production, Production Diary, Set design, Uncategorized

How Are We Lighting? Hint: Cheaply

BY SHAWN WHITNEY

My first short film, we rented a lighting kit “out of the back of a truck” – literally. A very, very sketchy dude named Scott and his rude girlfriend came by with a van load. He showed up 12 hours late (yes, 12) and almost pooched the shoot. At the end he showed up late to pick up his gear and tried to squeeze more money out of us. His gear was beat up and included (if I remember correctly) maybe 5 or 6 lights of various sorts. We had to build our own softboxes. We paid him $500 for the weekend.

So, when we thought about lighting A Brand New You, the idea of paying  several thousand dollars on lights just didn’t make sense financially. One of the bonuses of shooting with DSLR is that they are relatively flexible in terms of light and anyway, with the aperture wide open, you can get nicely textured, shallow depth of field (ie. your subject is in focus and everything else is blurred out, an ability whose lack in early indie video features was much lamented). But, of course, you still need lights and, especially, shooting with the D7000, which lacks the low light abilities of higher end cameras, like the Canon 5D MkIII.

What is our lighting kit? We have the kit you see in the photo above – daylight corrected fluorescent bulbs – a china ball that Gayle is bringing to set and we have a couple of small lights that Alex is bringing. The cost of the lighting kit? $200, including delivery. It may not be good enough to shoot a Hollywood blockbuster but it’s going to work just fine for us – check out our attempts to put it together and spark it below. If it’s not informative it is at least a bit comical (there was a longer video but Kathryn made me shut off the camera after we wrestled with the softbox for ten minutes only to realize that we had it on the wrong light! My bad:

Untitled from Shawn Whitney on Vimeo.

Untitled from Shawn Whitney on Vimeo.

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Filed under About BNY, Gear, Micro budget, Pre-production, Production Diary

Some Lessons From Casting A Microbudget Feature

Well, well, well, we thought it would never happen and it was a bit of a wending winding road getting here but we’ve pretty much secured all of our cast. We’ve learned a lot about dealing with ACTRA (the actor’s union) and incorporating and there’s a few mistakes that we won’t make again. But the main thing is that we’ve got an awesome cast for the production, which is now only five days away!

But before we introduce some of our fabulous cast in another post tomorrow – and we’ll have lots more about them in the coming days, with links to their reels (if they have them online) and perhaps even interviews – let’s talk about the experience a bit.

OK, first thing, if you’re making a microbudget here’s some stuff you need to know about ACTRA and professional actors. Number one, they do make a difference. Sure, not all non-union actors are weaker and less experienced than all union actors – but, in general, actors with experience and chops tend to join the union. That doesn’t mean working with ACTRA actors is the only route to a solid film. Our favourite sister lo-fi sci-fi film, shot in Toronto – Ghosts With Shit Jobs – used non-union/non-professional actors. It has built itself a lot of buzz and enthusiasm. Mike Leigh has made a career of directing non-actors in films. Nobody would say that Mike Leigh was an amateur filmmaker. But we can’t all be Mike Leigh (sigh).

Secondly, because ACTRA actors tend to be more experienced and professional, you will save time on your production because they can nail their scenes more quickly. That can save you some coin – even if you’re cast and crew are all on deferred pay, you still gotta feed them (unless you are a cruel, cruel filmmaker).

HOWEVER, if you do go ACTRA, expect it to cost you more than you planned. Just to apply to the TIP program you have to incorporate ($650-$2000 depending on legal costs) and you have to join the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA – cost: $400). In fact, I would recommend you get ACTRA to look at your application package BEFORE you go and blow thousands on incorporating, etc. They may complain about it but if your contact says they won’t help you out, speak to someone else. It’s entirely reasonable for you to get their opinion on whether they think your project is viable before you sink the cost of a used car on stuff that you would otherwise put up on screen.

Once you’ve paid those fees – there’s more! You also have to pay administration fees to both organizations – we just got a bill from the CMPA for another four hundred bones (we have no idea what for). We will be getting an admin fee from ACTRA as well. Then you have to get actors’ insurance (different from regular liability, which you should always get if there’s any costly equipment that could get broken or danger you might, just might, burn down your best friend’s house which you are using as a set). You also have to pay fringe benefits and, finally, sign a contract granting 3.6% of all gross profits made by your film after a one-year grace period.

From the point of view of ACTRA (and I agree with this), they aren’t giving you a discount, they are investing in your film the difference between the standard rate and the TIP rate. In return for that investment, they get money in the back end just like any other investor – and get to have a much more intrusive role in the production of your film than if you were paying regular rates. A lot of this is quite useful mentoring – so don’t get your knickers in a twist too much (though don’t let anyone tell you how to rewrite your script). Finally, all of this is going to lead to accountant’s fees, which will probably run in the range of at least a grand (according to my accountant – but we didn’t discuss figuring out the payment of investment income, which will probably mean a bookkeeper).

So, before you’ve even hired your actors and paid them, you’re adding to your budget anywhere in the range of $3400-$5000+ in extra costs, related to administration, legal fees, bureaucracy and accounting.

Also, once you agree to go with ACTRA you can forget about that little walk-on cameo that you planned for yourself, a la Alfred Hitchcock. Or putting investors in the film to squeeze a little more money out of them. Only ACTRA performers can appear as background in your film. According to the IPA (the ACTRA contract, which you’ll get a copy of when you are accepted into the TIP program), you can have other non-performing people in your film – people at a concert or walking down the street or hanging out in the park. As long as you’re not directing them. You can also have musicians performing in, say, a bar scene, since musical performance falls outside of the jurisdiction of ACTRA (hmmm, maybe you could do your cameo while playing the accordion your Uncle Vito gave you for your Confirmation).

The TIP Program has been very successful and is an important attempt to allow indie filmmakers to work with professional actors. Kudos to them for that. But…were I in a position to get anyone at ACTRA to listen I would tell them that they should take a look at the added and unnecessary costs they are imposing upon filmmakers. It’s simply not the case anymore that the only quality films getting made are above $100K. The mumblecore scene and films like Bellflower and Tiny Furniture or the work of Lynn Shelton are a clear demonstration of that. Most of those were made for under $30K – and $5,000 is a hefty portion to blow on admin and legal fees for a budget of that size.

Last, but not least, leave yourself extra time to work through the sometimes opaque process of getting approval. We expected a quick turnaround and, when it didn’t happen, we were left scrambling and panicking a bit.

You will need to have all your ducks in a row – a shooting schedule with daily page count; a budget, including some money dedicated to post; script materials; resumes/CVs etc. And expect that they will come back again and again asking for more stuff. Why they don’t just put that stuff on their application package demands is beyond me. It would allow filmmakers to better prepare, rather than submitting well prepared material and then scrambling to get new and unexpected stuff together when it is requested. Again, a lot of this is actually really useful – you want to have a shooting schedule and a shot list and a budget well in advance of your shoot. “Prior Preparation” and all that. It’s just frustrating that ACTRA doesn’t seem to have standardized this in the way that, say, grant or loan applications are standardized and transparent.

OK – I don’t want to end this little journey through our lessons from dealing with ACTRA on a negative note. We are absolutely thrilled to be working with professional actors and were blown away by the performances we got in the auditions. We know that this is a real value-added element for us that will make ABNY a much better film. Going with ACTRA actors is not the only legit route for microbudget filmmakers but we think that it’s the right one for us.

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Filed under About BNY, Micro budget, Pre-production, Production Diary, Uncategorized