When Is the Director Done?

Made In NY Bus Poster!

Found In Time has just been released on Amazon, and user reviews are starting to come in. They confirm something that all of us suspected from the beginning – that this was a film that would divide audiences. Those who were expecting something more straightforward would be frustrated; those who could deal with more ambiguity would be happy. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about either attitude, by the way. Ambiguity can be a terrible thing (see Prometheus).

We’re still waiting on some festivals to get back to us, and our foreign sales rep, Summer Hill Films, is taking it to Cannes next month. We’re also still exploring other domestic distribution options – DVD, BluRay, and a soundtrack album.

But most of that is the work of the producer, at least in theory. At what point is the director done with a film? Is it when it’s wrapped? When post is finished? When it’s out at festivals? When it’s available online or in stores? The producer is on for the whole ride (unless the producer is only working for hire). What is the director’s role in this brave new world of the artist/entrepreneur?

J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of the tv series Babylon 5, somehow managed to write most of the 100+ episodes, EP the show, supervise the sound mix, run the online forums on AOL (hey, it was back in the day), and then went on to write follow-up movies, supervise comic and novel adaptations, and answer fan mail. At what point did he say ‘I’m done?’ The show went off the air sometime in the late 1990s but still has a loyal following. Until Firefly and Battlestar Galactica came along it was the gateway drug by which I introduced my non-geek friends to sci-fi. Does he still feel as connected to the show as he did all those years ago?

I’m wrestling with this issue now because I’m in the process of getting back into the director’s chair again for Bitter Child, but I don’t want to abandon Found In Time just at the moment when people are starting to see it. It’s been part of my life so long that I’m not even sure how I would go about leaving it… and yet whenever I work on Bitter Child part of me feels guilty. It’s an odd conundrum, and very different from what I’ve faced before.

By the time my first film, Caleb’s Door, was finished, I was really ready to be done with it and get on with the next project. That was a hundred internet years ago, when social media was just gaining traction and distributors were starting the now-familiar pattern of picking up films for a song and then putting them out into the marketplace with little if any promotion. The idea of the filmmaker taking up the promotion baton was seen as counterproductive (except for documentaries). Festivals were the main avenue for promoting a film.

I moved on to another project (which fell apart), then onto Found In Time. And the funny thing is, that while there are a lot of books out there on how to make your film, there are fewer on how to finish them, even fewer on how to distribute them, and none that I know of about how to do whatever happens after distribution. So I never really went through this before.

I can tell you that it’s a difficult process emotionally to untangle oneself from a project once its “finished,” and make plans for its entry into the world. Whenever I read the negative reviews, I wonder if I’ve made the film too inaccessible or too vague. Or I think that the marketing is off. Or I wonder if there’s a more ‘targeted’ distribution avenue out there.

Working on Bitter Child (and my television project, The Spectral City) is great, but it adds to the tension somewhat. It’s hard to work on more than one project at a time and give each one the proper attention and energy. And with The Spectral City, some more early-stage projects, and the need to make a living all jostling for attention. keeping sustained focus on any one thing can be difficult.

I still wake up every day happy to be in a position to make films and write and express myself, so don’t get the impression that it’s all doom and gloom. My grandparents and parents never had a chance to really pursue their artistic passions as fully as they would have liked. So I’m very lucky. This feeling of uncertainty about what my role is in regards to Found In Time – beyond being a sort of internet-age carnival barker (or wheatpaste band poster brigadier) – is something that’s akin to being a parent, I guess. We’ve raised the kid, and now it’s time to let it go and take on a supporting role in its life.

Six Things I’m Learning About Distribution

Found In Time goes to Harvard

Found In Time goes to Harvard’s VeriCon

#6: Don’t Bother With The Top-Tier Festivals.

I wasted a lot of time – nearly six months – sending the film out to “A-List” festivals. These are the ones that everyone wants to get in – Sundance, Berlin, Toronto, Berlin, Cannes, and Tribeca. I applied to three of them (Sundance, Toronto and Berlin), but really I should have started with the sci-fi/fantasy/horror festivals and targeted them instead.

While it’s always a “nice idea” to premiere at Sundance, the time you spend waiting to hear from them – during which you can’t really apply to any other festivals that may screen beforehand – is time you could be spending on other things. Unless you know for a fact that you can really get into Sundance or one of the other fests, don’t wait for them to pass on you – go find another festival premiere that may better suit your material anyway.

In my case, Shriekfest was happy to premiere my film, and I screened in front of a great, appreciative audience. I also got a lot of press coverage from the screening, was treated really well by the staff and fans, and my LA-based cast were able to see the film as well. I even won an award! If I’d premiered at Sundance earlier that year, I would have been competing with much bigger fish with budgets for publicists and wine-and-dine parties.

#5: Figure Out Your Genre.

I initially thought my film would appeal to indie-types because it’s a little on the experimental side, and fantasy fans, because it’s not really “hard” sci-fi. I called it a “fantasy” film. I consciously avoided the terms “sci-fi” or “science fiction” whenever possible because I didn’t want my film to be compared to other higher-budgeted, effects-driven films.

I was wrong on both counts. The people who liked my film were sci-fi folks. The crew, cast, and early viewers all called it a “sci-fi” film. The festivals that accepted it first: sci-fi/horror fests. The people who seemed to hate it the most (judging by distributor and festival rejections) – the “indie crowd.” I think “Found In Time” hit the market at the same time as a crap-ton of weepy 20-something-let’s-figure-out-our-relationship-bastard-son-of-mumblecore movies hit the market, and those are what played at SXSW, Tribeca, and Rooftop the past couple of years. Some of these films are great, by the way, but they’re not what I made.

If you’ve made a movie, try and figure out where it “belongs” in the genre universe as soon as possible, so you’re not wasting money and time sending it out to festivals, sales agents, and distributors who really don’t know what to do with it. And yes, drama and comedy are genres.

#4: Don’t Make Your Artwork Too Specific:

I printed up my first batch of postcards to indicate the Shriekfest screening time and location. This was dumb. It made it almost impossible to re-use those cards. I had to cut out custom-sized labels with the Eerie Horrorfest times on them, then carefully stick them over the Shriekfest screening times.

#3: Sometimes The Screening Isn’t Going to Be Great.

The projector’s too dark, the sound system is a rusty tin can with string, the attendance is down, there’s a blizzard outside, your screening time is at 9am, there’s a huge racket outside… you can only control so much about your screening, and then you have to let it go. DON’T let your anger show, or take it out on the staff or the audience. Treat the staff and audience with the same respect regardless of their size or the conditions. Some of the best screening experiences I had were when five people showed up. Those five people held a Q&A with me for an HOUR after the film. Those are the fans you should kill to have.

#2: Try to Avoid Online Screeners.

I still firmly believe that DVD and BluRay offer a superior viewing experience, if for no other reason than they require the sales agent/festival programmer/distributor to actually sit down, put the disc in, and watch something. Especially now that net neutrality in this country is about to be toast, I don’t want my film being choked to the point of unplayability, or competing directly with the viewer’s other twenty browser tabs.

#2: Transparency Works Better Than Opacity

The prevailing wisdom back when I got out of school was that you kept your cards close to your chest – your budget, your plans for the film, your premiere status, etc. You didn’t want your film getting stale, so you listed it on IMDB much later in the process. You didn’t want your ideas stolen by competing filmmakers, so you didn’t reach out to them. You didn’t tell your fans what you were up to, as a means of building suspense.

The truth is that telling people what’s going on with the film – especially the cast and crew – at each step of the way has been a great help. It’s kept us all together like the happy family we were when we were shooting. Putting up set photos, listing the film on IMDB, setting up the Facebook page, reaching out to other filmmakers at festivals, comparing notes – it’s all been a great experience and I think has only helped us find a bigger audience. I’ve also had a much better time. I still think that you don’t want to tell people your budget unless it was so low that that’s actually part of your marketing. However, explaining your process, how you shot it, what your successes and failure during the production and post were, can only help you stay connected to your audience, your cast, your crew, and the larger filmmaking community.

#1: Make the Film With The Assumption That You’re Going to Self Distribute.

When I started making Found In Time, finding a distributor still seemed like a good idea, so I budgeted so as to pour as much money into the making of the film as possible. I’m happy with my distribution deal, and I still think that finding a “traditional” solution makes sense if you’ve crossed a certain budget threshold.

However, for super-low-budget films, direct or hybrid distribution models make more sense and will net the filmmaker more money and exposure than waiting forever to get a deal with no advance. You just have to adjust your budget accordingly, and spend more of it on the end of the process rather than on the beginning. But this also frees you to work on your own timetable. Get some buzz from festivals, sell DVDs directly, then find a streaming solution that works. You have to spend more time on distribution, but you’ll learn a lot along the way.

I’m learning more every day! The beauty and difficulty of this strange art/business form we’ve chosen is that there’s always more to figure out. Got a different opinion? Let me know!

2013 – What a Year!

Happy Holidays and New Year!

Happy new year to everyone! The year kicked off with a couple of great pieces of news: first, Found In Time had its New York City festival premiere at the Anthology Film Archives, as part of their ongoing NewFilmmakers NY program, on January 2nd. The attendance was a little sparse, but pretty damn good considering it was just after the new year and we were in the beginning stages of a really crummy winter storm.

Secondly, Preparing For Takeoff got a really nice review in Pro Video Coalition (PVC). Head over and read it if you get a chance.. PVC is a really terrific site, and features reviews, articles, tips, and news about the film and video world. It’s a great resource for indie filmmakers.


2013 was a pretty amazing year, by and large. It was a bit overwhelming at times. Found In Time played at nine festivals and got picked up for distribution. Along the way we created a seemingly endless amount of key artwork, for the poster, flyer, postcard, DVD slipcase, DVD cover, online ad, etc. Preparing For Takeoff, my book on preproduction, was also published in 2013. Promoting it to bookstores, conventions, review sites, indie filmmakers, and colleges took a while but was very rewarding. Somewhere in there I rewrote an older spec script, and started working on some new projects. Oh, and I started teaching a course on production management, something I’d never really done before.

One of the casualties of all this newness was the downtime I had two years ago when Found In Time was wending its way through post. It’s been harder to find time to reflect, exercize, and meet with colleagues and friends. I find that I miss it, and so one of my 2014 resolutions has been to carve out more downtime. It’s the only way to recharge and come up with new ideas.


The good and bad news is that filmmakers are finally waking up to what’s going on in their field, namely that they’re getting pushed into the same position that musicians found themselves in about ten years ago, and writers have been in for even longer. The demand for media of all types is rising, but the payoff for the media creators is getting smaller each year. That would be acceptable if the cost of living was manageable, but it really isn’t anymore. Education, healthcare, rent, food costs – pretty much all the necessities of life have become insanely expensive, even more so in the big cities that are often meccas for creative people.

The good news is that film folk are individually and collectively trying to do something about this. I’ve noticed a lot of camaraderie among filmmakers, and less competition. There’s been a growing awareness on the part of writer/directors of the critical role of the producer. I’ve seen crowdfunding take off in a really big way. Filmmakers have embraced (for better or worse) the idea that they have to think about distribution from the get-go.

The bad news is that marketing and promotion are difficult enough to do when it’s your sole job. When you’re also responsible for creating the thing you’re marketing, it becomes difficult if not impossible. To run your art as a business, you have to dedicate time to the following:

  • Working on new projects
  • Making and following up with contacts
  • Distributing projects that are “finished”
  • Marketing and promoting projects (both new and old)
  • Taking care of the office (paying bills, ordering supplies)
  • Bringing in/chasing after money

Each of these requires a different skill set, and a different type of concentration. The soft underbelly of all this is the art itself. After you’ve done all your social media work, fired off emails to friends, put together a little pitch document for your latest project, put the artwork together for your film’s postcard, and done some paying work (that’s hopefully film-related), how much energy/time/concentration do you have left to sit down and write your next script? Or even read your next script? And yet, people are doing it, often by forming small teams. I saw a lot of three and four-person “families” at the festivals this past year, and it’s a good sign.


This past year marks the first in many where I think I spent more hours watching TV shows than I did actually going to the movies. I usually watch one show at a time, because that’s all I can budget for. This past year, however, I watched Game Of Thrones, Orphan Black, Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, and too many specials and webisodes to mention. This is a great time for television!

This was also the first year I saw more consistently awesome films at festivals than in theaters. I was terribly disappointed by most of the studio movies I saw in theaters, and even many of the so-called indie movies were just rehashes of various formulas with an “alternative” soundtrack. On the other hand, the films I saw at festivals – both shorts and features – were captivating, surprising, engaging, and entertaining, and managed to be all those things on shoestring budgets. Most of these films are going straight to DVD and digital.

This, frankly, sucks. The big screen still has a place in our culture, and it shouldn’t be reserved for high-budget dreck like Star Trek: Into Dumbness, or even enjoyable rides like Pacific Rim. Have we have become too enamored of spectacle, and identify it with the big screen too much? Can’t we still appreciate how wonderful it is to see a truly indie movie in a theater with strangers laughing, crying, clapping and oohing all around you? I remember seeing Francois Truffaut’s Small Change in an arthouse theater in upstate New York as a kid. It was as momentous to me as seeing Star Wars in the theater in the Bronx a few years earlier. There’s still a place for a theatrical release for really small films, but we may have to fight a bit to make it work.


Found In Time will be released this year by Green Apple Entertainment. Beyond that it’s hard to say what’s going to happen. We’re still looking at festivals, sci-fi conventions, and alternative theatrical venues for the film, and are contemplating a trip to the Cannes Marketplace to get acquainted with the woolly world of foreign sales agents. The future can be guaranteed to bring more change, at a more rapid clip that was thought possible. Here’s to a great year ahead. Let the adventure continue!

Further Lessons On Distribution


First up: we’re going to Buffalo next week! Found In Time will make its New York State premiere at the Buffalo Dreams Film Festival!
WHERE: Dipson Theaters, Amherst I-III, 3500 Main St., Buffalo NY
WHEN: Tuesday, November 12th @ 4:30pm
TIX: Hit up the official website for tickets and schedule info.

So you’ve finished your film! That’s great. Got distribution! Awesome! Are you done? Nope. Not by a long shot. In today’s world, it’s incumbent on the filmmaker, not the distributor, to pull the audience in. Not that distributors have stopped doing that, exactly… rather, it’s that they really don’t have much incentive to do so for your film. They’re working with the old models, of “how do I push this onto an audience.” Their tools are casting and/or genre. The new model is “how do I pull the audience toward the film.” This is more exciting in some ways – we can, maybe, finally, kinda, sorta, get beyond the “star” mentality which, as Ted Hope predicted (back in 1995) would wreck the indie film world. But it also puts more pressure on filmmakers, many of whom (myself included) got into this field because we didn’t want to “buy, sell or process anything” but rather MAKE things that other people more skilled than us would then buy and sell and process.

This is part of the dilemma of making films in today’s world. You have to keep working on them after you’re “done.” The past year or so has been one of non-stop anxiety for me, as I’ve waited for each festival, sales agent, and distributor acceptance/rejection email. The hours that I’ve spent adding reviews to the website, updating the key art, burning screener DVDs, keeping the Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn feeds alive, and reaching out to schools, theaters, conventions, festivals, review sites, etc. is all time that I could have put toward my next project. And before you say “get an intern to do it,” what, exactly would keep an intern working on this for more than a week? While I have an overall strategy I’m still making this up as I go. I’d still have to do the research before I told said intern who/what to contact. I’d have to approve the line art. So what’s the time savings?

Also, I think it’s actually good to see a project through this stage. For one thing, you’ll learn how to reach out to audiences, how the distribution game works, and whether the film even fits where you initially thought it did. I initially thought I had a fantasy/indie art-house film on my hands, but it’s found it’s greatest success among sci-fi/horror fans and sci-fi-related film festivals. So I’m steered away from calling it a fantasy and emphasized the sci-fi aspects of the film. I’m also starting to target sci-fi conventions, meetup groups, and clubs – they’re my fan base, and I’m trying to reach out to them through event screenings and special Q&As.

I’m also building tools for the next project – an intake procedure for the dozens of business cards I end up with after each festival; a distribution/promotion database that will cut down on the time spent writing cover letters and make tracking screeners and phone calls easier; a more efficient method for producing “behind-the-scenes” clips and interviews; a tool for generating eblasts without having to hand-code everything; and so on. If you can leverage your experience on one film, then the next one will, in theory, go smoother.


A few things I’ve learned during this process:

  • It’s never too early to put your deliverables together. I should have cut the last two behind-the-scenes interviews and the DVD commentary together long before the distribution deal came through. Ditto with revising the DVD sleeve art. On the other hand, the poster art, stills, trailer, and almost everything else was just about ready to go.
  • Reach out to your peeps. Once you have a distribution deal (and it’s okay to announce it), drop an email to the folks at the festivals you played at. Let them know what’s going on. Do the same with the cast and crew. Once you have a street date, send another one. If the festivals have an email blast, ask if you can advertise in it, so people can go and buy your DVD/stream your film when it comes out.
  • Don’t wait to figure out your e-commerce site. I’m still experimenting with the right WordPress plug-in but I feel like I’ve got it down to one of three. These take time to set up and experiment with so don’t wait until after you get your first sell-through DVD shipment. People will want to buy your film right away if they can.

Well, that’s it for now. By next month, we will hopefully have a street date for Found In Time!

Get Your Production Company Together

First, a little bit of news: we’ve put some more goodies up on our IndieGogo page – our business plan, topsheet budget, and some more concept art are now online and available for download.

In our last post, we covered the first steps you’ll want to take in starting up the production company for your film. Now we’ll slow down a little and go over a few more steps, and then talk about some longer-term issues.

Getting A Credit Card: It’s important to get a credit card early on, and pay any initial expenses with it (while of course paying it off every month). This will help you establish a credit rating for the company, which may come in handy later, should you need to apply for a loan or a second card. I recommend getting three cards, actually:
— an AMEX card that gives you cash back or miles (you may need the miles to fly actors in)
— A regular business credit card
— A debit card attached to your bank account

It’s a pretty sure bet that the credit card companies will be looking at YOUR credit score when you apply, so now would be a good time to get a credit report via creditreport.com or one of the other services (your bank should also have a credit reporting service).

Figure Out How You’re Going to Pay The SAG Bond and Any Deposits: Chances are, unless you’re film is really, really tiny, you’re going to be dealing with the Screen Actors Guild. And they’re going to want a deposit equivalent to a percentage of the actors’ salaries (there’s a formula but it varies). They’ll want this deposit in certified check or money order form. They will refund the bond once the film is shot and all the paperwork is complete. Of course, this process can drag on, especially if the SAG rep loses your paperwork (always make copies!)

You can lower it somewhat by agreeing to put the actors’ salaries in an escrow account run by their agents, prior to the shoot. But this won’t eliminate the bond altogether. So start thinking about how you’re going to float the money (cash advance, loan, line of credit with your bank, etc.) Don’t wait until the last minute to figure this out.

Likewise, you’ll also want to sort out how you’ll deal with any equipment deposits (which can sometimes be quite large) or credit card holds. Putting that stuff on your production account debit card is a bad idea, especially the holds. And some places don’t take AMEX.

Separate Your Books: It’s important to separate the day-to-day development expenses that are NOT associated with your movie, from the preproduction expenses that are. This is hard to do at first – at the beginning, you may be making a call that could serve as both a development call (hey, look at all my projects) or as a financing call for the current film (hey, look at this one script). But it’s critical to separate as much as possible, for several reasons.

Firstly, it’s honest. If you want your investors to come back again, it pays to make sure they’re not inadvertently paying for calls to your spouse, or a new fancy desk or lamp that isn’t needed on the shoot.

Secondly, it will give you a sense of how fast you’re actually spending the money, whether you need to slow down or not (you don’t want to spend out the budget before you start shooting), and (worst case) whether you should be raising more dough.

Find A Lawyer/Get Your Legal Documents Together: The film business is not known for its plethora of honest, easygoing people. A good entertainment attorney can help you cut through the chaff of wanna-be’s and protect you from the predators. In fact, your attorney may be the most important member of your team. So choose your attorney wisely.

You want someone who’s a clear communicator, has an enthusiasm for their work, and specializes in entertainment law – which encompasses securities, copyright, contracts, labor, intellectual property, and other domains. Look for someone who you can form a long-term relationship with. Ideally, your attorney will work with you all the way through the sale of this film and the next one as well.

Get Your Attorney Working on Offering Documents: This is very important. Anytime you have someone giving you money you can bet they’ll want some kind of contract. For most films you’ll need three documents:
— The Private Placement Memorandum, which lays out the nature of the investment, summarizes the risks, and covers liability, company dissolution, and breach of contract.
— The Operating Agreement, which lays out how the LLC actually… operates, the relationship between the investors and managers, and what rights each party has. You give these two documents to prospective investors. Hopefully they return them to you signed along with a nice big check (that clears).
— A Joint Venture Agreement, which covers you and whoever else you’re producing the film with (if you’re the writer/director, this covers your relationship with the producer; if you and your partner are both producers, this covers both of you… you get the idea). Good contracts make good partners. I can’t tell you how many films I’ve seen burn to the ground because two friends decided to make a movie together, broke up over something at some point during post, then – because there was no contract in place – couldn’t agree on who “owned” the film.

Your investors will breathe easier, knowing that the people in charge have an agreement between them as well.

Okay, that’s about as much business stuff as I can deal with for one blog. Next time we’ll get to some more fun stuff, such as concept art, script analysis, or (hopefully) some big news about the film. Until then, have a good one!

Video Pitch Online

We just finished and uploaded a video pitch for Found in Time. You can check it out on IndieGogo.com. In it I try to describe the story, what we’re trying to do in making it, and how you can help us make it happen.

I want to take a moment and thank everyone for their donations of time, energy and money. The making of the video actually highlights another aspect of the DIWO (Do It With Others’) ethos. My friend, writer/director Rick Mowat, donated his video and sound gear. Several other friends and colleagues watched various early versions of the pitch and offered excellent constructive criticism. Bob Seigel, another long-time friend and the legal counsel for the film, made sure all my i’s were dotted and t’s crossed. And Vimeo, Indiegogo, Facebook, Blogger, and Contactology have made it possible to tell people about the pitch for little to no dough.

If you had to add up the real cost of that advice, service, gear, and hosting, it would be quite a bit. So thank you to all who’ve taken time out to help us in our quest to bring the film to fruition.

Some More Business News

As I said in one of my previous posts, the temptation is to just shoot the damn thing. But while you definitely need to have that energy and enthusiasm, you also need to cover your butt and do a few business-type things first. You’ll be happy you did in the long run, and while it will drain some of that enthusiasm away at first, later it will free you from various worries and let you make your film. So here’s an all-too-brief overview of the steps you should take to get your film on the rails.

1. Copyright the script with the U.S. Copyright office:http://www.copyright.gov. For $35 you get your work protected (at least somewhat). Also, SAG will usually require a proof of registration of the script, so just do it.

2. Do a breakdown, schedule and budget for the script, so you know how much to ask for and about how long it will take to shoot. You can hire a line producer for this job (the cost will range from several hundred to a couple of thousand), or do it yourself.

There are definite pros to hiring a line producer. If they have any experience at all, they’ll find and show you the expensive elements in your script, and give you at least an ideal schedule. They also have a good sense of what things cost in the particular place you’re shooting (labor prices, as well as goods and services, vary from region to region).

But I recommend that you do it yourself instead and hire a line producer to check your work. Just don’t kid yourself about how much time it takes – you’ll need a month or more to do this step. But you’ll be learning a valuable skill, and you’ll get to know your script inside and out. It may even help you do a rewrite, both to make things cheaper and also better dramatically.

3. Decide if you’re going to need investors, or if you can get by with your own money plus lots of favors (probably all of them you ever had coming to you) plus a credit card, loan, grant, second mortgage, etc.

I STRONGLY advise you to consider the POSSIBILITY of having investors. It affects many business decisions you’ll make from this point on (see points 4 and 5). And yes, your mom or uncle or whoever who wants to give you money for the film – unless it’s under $1000 or an outright gift – should be considered an investor. Even if you go it alone, any bank down the road will want to see some kind of corporate structure in place before they give you a loan. And psychologically, I think that having to think of other people and their money while you’re making your film can be a good thing – it forces you to examine the film from an outsider’s perspective.

4. If you need investors, put together a business plan. This is a 30-50 page document (or a PowerPoint slideshow) that explains, in as simple terms as possible: what your story is, why it’s special, how it fits into the film marketplace, what your financial goals are with the film, and why anyone in their right minds would want to invest in it.

You can hire other people to do this for you (be prepared to pay a few grand) or learn how to do it yourself. The best book I’ve read on this subject is Louise Levison’s Business Plans for Independents. Again, I recommend you at least try to do it yourself. You may find it a STEEP learning curve, but it will force you to consider your story from yet another perspective.

5. Decide on Incorporation. You’ll need an entity separate from yourself to make the film, hold onto your investor(s)’ money, and deal with all the vendors and crew and SAG. There are several types of business entities, but the most common are:

Subchapter S Corporations: these are designed for small businesses. They offer a “pass-through” mechanism so that income from the corporation is allowed to pass through the corporate “veil” to the owners. S Corps are easy and cheap to form, don’t require a lot of maintenance from the IRS and state tax agency, and can have investors (they become shareholders). You can set up a mechanism whereby you will always own the majority of stock. This keeps you in the driver’s seat while allowing other people to put money into your project.

So what is the problem? Well, because of the “pass-through” regulation, S Corps do offer somewhat less protection from lawsuits which would see to pierce the corporate veil (ie, go after your personal assets). In most states, there’s an upper limit on the number of investors that one S corporation can have. And other corporations or entities can’t become investors.

C Corporations (C corps) offer a solution to all these problems, but aren’t really set up for small business owners. You have a MOUNTAIN more paperwork to file and track, and depending on your budget, you may have to file with the SEC. Trust me on this, you don’t want to create a C Corp.

Limited Liability Partnerships (LLPs) used to be the entity of choice for filmmakers. You become the managing partner; investors become limited partners. The company is structured to give you most of the creative and strategic control, while protecting the investors’ money and legal responsibility (the middle “L”) in case you screw up. But these are relatively clunky, and are treated by the IRS as partnerships, not corporations.

Limited Liability Companies (LLCs) combine elements of corporations and partnerships. You become the Managing Member; investors just become Members. An operating agreement defines the different roles. You’ll have to do a few things (the next few steps) to set up the company.

If you think you’ll have more investors than, say, your uncle, you’ll want to form an LLC. It offers the best combination of protection, paperwork hassle, and flexibility. It’s also “the devil you know” – any investors who are NOT your friends or family will be expecting you to have an LLC.

You don’t have to form an LLC right away, but should do it within the same year you go into production. You’ll need a few weeks to set it (and all your other stuff) up, so you should schedule accordingly.

6. File the incorporation paperwork. Here’s where I get lazy. You can file the paperwork with the state yourself, but I usually use Inc It Now‘s service for the initial filing. They charge a premium but can deliver the filing receipt and other paperwork faster than you’ll get it back from the state otherwise. Expect to pay about $450 or so. Most of this goes to the state filing agency, with the rest paying for postage, your “black beauty” (the big thick book containing your corporate seal and all your corporate documents), and Inc It Now’s service fee. For this you’ll get a filing receipt with the state you incorporated in, a black book with stock certificates and other paperwork, your corporate seal, and your initial articles of organization (a brief contract explaining how the LLC works).

I recommend you incorporate in the same state you’re doing business in. While you can incorporate in a different state, you’ll have to file additional paperwork within your own state to be treated as a “foreign corporation.” You may also have to pay some taxes. It’s more of a pain. Some people maintain that it’s worth it, however, because each state taxes corporations differently. That’s why you’ll see a lot of LLCs that were incorporated in Delaware but do business in New York.

A word of advice on Inc It Now’s services: they have several “packages” available. The best value for your money, however, is to just let them do the initial filing, and for you to handle the following steps (below) yourself.

7. Get an EIN. Once you get the black beauty and the filing certificate, go to the IRS website and file for an EIN. An EIN is the corporate equivalent of a social security number, and you’ll need it to do just about ANYTHING else. Their new online form is pretty good – it’s actually written in English, as opposed to IRS-ese – and you’ll get an EIN right away. Doing this yourself will save you some $$$ over letting Inc. It Now do it for you.

8. Get your filing receipt. A couple of days to a few weeks after you get your black beauty, you’ll also receive a copy of the filing receipt from the state, with a state seal stamped on it. You’ll need this later, so hold onto it.

9. Publish. Depending on what state you incorporated in, you may need to publish a notification of your company’s existence. Two newspapers or circulars publish a daily classified listing stating that your company exists. This is possibly the biggest pain in the ass in this whole ordeal, and apart from a payola scheme, I don’t really know what purpose it serves anymore. I recommend contacting Hudson Advertising if you live in New York (212-732-0337). They get paid by the publishers, so there’s no surcharge to you above the advertising fees (which range from $600 to $1800, depending on the state and, believe it or not, the county of your company’s address). The problem is that if you don’t do this step, the state government can simply declare your corporation invalid. Then you’ll have to start over again.

10. Open a bank account. Once you have your filing receipt and your black beauty, you should open up a checking account with a bank you can tolerate. If you have a budget big enough to justify an escrow account, you’ll want to set up an escrow/production account. This is really two accounts bolted together: an escrow account (where the investor money goes into), and a production account (where you write checks from). You can’t tap the escrow account until you’ve hit the break point (this is up to you to determine). The escrow account can be further set up to track individual investors’ monies, so the bank can send statements back to each investor.

If you’re doing a film for less than $100K, chances are you need whatever money comes in AS it comes in, so you’ll probably want to just set up a simple corporate bank account. You’ll need your EIN and usually the filing receipt or articles of organization (that’ll be in your black beauty), as well as your personal ID.

One important consideration: how many ATMs does this bank operate in the city/town you’ll be shooting in? During production, you’ll often find yourself in need of cash, and you don’t want to piss away money on ATM fees, do you?

11. Set up Your Online Merchant Account. Next (for now), you’ll want to set up an Amazon.com merchant account, and possibly a Paypal account so you can take donations online. These accounts link back to your bank account. Most crowdfunding sites require one or the other (Indiegogo requires an Amazon account).

There are a few more steps to take but you’re probably exhausted from reading this far, so we’ll cover the rest in the next post (I promise). While it all seems like a lot, and it can be somewhat intimidating, if you leave yourself enough time, you’ll be rewarded by (a) learning a lot of new things (which is never bad) and (b) preparing yourself to think like a business person, which you’ll need to do at the other end when you’re trying to sell your film. You’ll also get more acquainted with your script, and may see some things that need changing (it’s always cheaper to figure this out early).

Business First, Fun Later

Starting the moviemaking process is like arriving at the beach after a really long drive. You get out of the car, uncramp your legs, and look at the gorgeous, calming waves. You want to dive right in… but first you need to move all your stuff into the motel room, change into a bathing suit, put lots of suntan lotion on, and probably eat something.

All I want to do is shoot. But first, you have to take care of business. So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks.

First I broke down the script and put a rough schedule together. Then I created a budget for production and post. After crying over how expensive everything seems to be, I cut the budget down to my original target – $110K.

Now I’m setting up the Limited Liability Company (LLC) that will serve as the production entity for the film. Found In Time LLC will take donations and investments, write checks, rent equipment, obtain insurance, and ” do” all the film-related stuff.

Those of you who aren’t familiar with this end of the film business need to pay attention to this – you don’t want to make a feature film as a single individual. Incorporation protects you on several levels:

  • The company stands between you and any potential lawsuits that come up during production. Short of defrauding your investors or running off with the payroll, you as a private citizen can’t be sued, only your company.
  • The company signs with the Screen Actors Guild and whatever other guilds and unions you have to deal with. This means you can make your next film a non-union one if necessary. If you as a private person sign with SAG, however, any film you’re helming will have to be a SAG film – signatory status is for the life of the signer.
  • Taxes: corporate income is taxed far differently (and more favorably) from individual wage income. The reasons why are too complex to go into here, but trust me – this is why the rich incorporate
  • Structure: If you do have investors (even if – or maybe especially if – they’re you’re relatives), you’ll need some kind of recognized business structure to deal with the matters like their investment, profit participation, who’s in charge of the film’s future, etc.

There are a whole host of other reasons to incorporate, but those are the most prominent in my mind. It’s like putting suntan lotion on.

So that’s the big news this week. By next week, I should have a bank account and Amazon.com merchant account set up. This will enable me to start the crowdfunding process.

Also, in a couple of weeks I’ll be meeting with my DP, the awesome Ben Wolf to talk about the look of the film. Out of that should come some more concept art and scout photos.