The Short to Feature Lab Curriculum

A Field Guide to Making Movies in 2018

1. Manifesto

No one is going to help you. You will have to do it yourself.

The industry of filmmaking is changing so quickly towards producing content that everyone, even brands are becoming media creators. All of them understand the power of owning content, the modern War for attention, and all of them are years behind you as an actual filmmaker.

By gathering your friends, family, and talented, enthusiastic people you can shoot a feature film in 10–14 days, or a short film in 1. Technological advances have enabled consumers to perform the entirety of a studio’s production and post-production inexpensively. The Democratization of Feature film distribution has resulted in a vacuum of predatory buying practices which won’t keep filmmakers above the poverty line. Now, anyone can pay to get their film onto iTunes and pitched to Netflix through inexpensive aggregators like Quiver. Paired with a genuine and long-lasting care for the films, filmmakers like us can impersonate and outperform small to mid-range distribution companies. Facebook advertising has become so comprehensive that anyone with a little creative thinking and a Facebook page can find their film’s exact audience while maintaining all of their ownership and income in perpetuity. I will never understand why filmmakers give up every percent of their films’ rights, and all of their income, to people who don’t actually care about their movie.

This is not the future, it’s the present. We are living in a moment where seizing the means of production can translate into a long and industrious career for yourself in film.

People will attempt to convince you of otherwise, they will say you need to work inside of their company or their system to qualify as a real filmmaker or to be taken seriously. They do this because if you work inside of their system, you are their subordinate and they won’t have to worry about you as their competition. Let’s be perfectly clear: You are their competition. By pushing the boundaries in ways that they cannot as a company or studio, you will win their audiences every time.

The current Hollywood systems, alongside a political-generational shift towards sanitized filmmaking, has created a chasm in the market for films that use the full breadth of the 1st Amendment showing realistic profanity, realistic violence, realistic sex, realistic characters, and therefor realistic humanity, which is all that audiences connect to. Companies like A24 and Neon have made millions and won Oscars scratching this itch amongst adults, and it is so crucial for us to join in. Only we, as independents, can hurdle these uncool people to become the direct competition to their craftless and forgettable films.

We are the Backyard Pixar Revolution. We are coming for you.


A 90-year-old man walks into confession. He says, “Forgive me Father, I’ve sinned. I slept with two 20-year-old women last night outside of wedlock.” The father says, “That’s terrible, my son. When was the last time you made confession?” He says, “I’ve never made confession before father, I’m Jewish.” The Father says, “You’re Jewish? Well what are you telling me for?” He says, “Well, Father, I’m tellin’ everybody…”

There is little difference between oral storytelling and cinematic storytelling; both are equations of dramatic and comedic set-ups and payoffs. A film should be equally compelling when told aloud. I record all of my screenplays as podcasts and mix them to music and sound design; I feel it is always better display of what the film will be. Performing it out loud forces you to think hard about each moment; how can we make this stronger, what is the best version of this scene, how can we best use this moment to conduct our audience’s emotions at this point of the story? By focusing entirely on audience engagement, imagining that you are the conductor of the rollercoaster at each moment, you are already ahead of most.

2. Ideation

The ideation period for a film is different for everyone: some have scripts delivered to them and they take their pick, Stephen King scours newspapers for interesting stories, Christopher Guest tries not to think of films for a full year and then an idea will hit him. Ideas come to me over a long time and then all at once.

I never thought I was an artist, I looked at movies like a science: giant formulas of light and sound that are structured to get emotions out of audiences. I still think this way, but for years it discouraged me from having confidence in the arts.

I think about what will move people. I usually think about the drama first because I always find it easier to make something funny, it’s harder to make something realistic, or life-affirming. I say “listen to your biology”. What actually makes you cry? You find yourself crying, alone in your car or at the cinema. Bing Bong’s big scene in Inside Out. The illiterate player from A League of Their Own. Jonah Takalua. Write these moments down. Ask yourself why are you moved by them. Analyze the craftsmanship of the writing and the editing and the set-up that brought you to this moment emotionally. It’s a magic trick. It’s sleight of hand, you were distracted with the left hand using comedy or action, while the right was setting up heartbreak. It’s a punchline.

Find what moves you, find the humanity of the story, build your films from there, ask yourself: “how does this story work best over 90 minutes?”

3. Writing

There is a well-subscribed community who propagate and idolize screenplay format, it’s a cargo cult that’s maintained by these daydreamers, which almost exclusively glorifies and benefits old men. The same goes for 35MM film.

Screenwriting, as a professional fascination, is built on desires for personal approval that can be as fruitless and full of wish-thinking as gambling-addiction. Screenwriting is not filmmaking, it’s a part of filmmaking, it’s one of the blueprints, but it is not a good litmus test for the quality of a movie, clearly; Studios sign huge checks to great screenplays to then receive the worst Rotten Tomatoes scores in history. The Thunder Road Screenplay received multiple 3/10 ratings on The Blacklist. Yesterday, The Academy’s screenplay library reached out to have it added to their collection. The screenplay for Dunkirk is 70 pages. The only thing (Academy Award Winning Screenwriter) Diablo Cody knew about screenwriting when she wrote Juno was that “the dialogue is in the middle.” It’s ok to suck at writing screenplays if you know what will make a great movie and if you want to understand how people engage with movies in 2018, don’t study the script for Seabiscuit, get a Reddit Account like a normal person.

A movie is meant to be performed, act every scene out and write down the best dialogue. When most screenwriters write, they sit at a computer and hear the characters speaking in their minds and they write that stuff down. But by actually performing each scene aloud, you find incredible improvised moments that may take the scenes in better directions, and the dialogue is authentic and not over-scripted because it is actually coming out of human vocal cords.

Once the film is written (once you have a good draft), record it as a podcast. Record yourself reading it in a closet on the VoiceMemo App, bring it into an editing software, mix it, add music and sound design. It is easy to misinterpret an email, do not let someone misinterpret your script. Share it with trusted friends and fellow filmmakers. It is the best example of what your film will be, and most importantly, no one will ever read your script. That’s very important to remember: almost no one will read your script.

When it comes to script notes, listen to the problem, not the diagnosis. If people are saying “It feels slow here, maybe have the character do XYZ.” All you have to hear is “It feels slow here-”, you’ll know how to fix the problem.

Anyone can do this.

4. Pre-pre-Production

Start an LLC specifically for your film, you’ll need it. Open a business checking account. Run a Kickstarter campaign. Shoot a video of you discussing the project. Mimic the Thunder Road Kickstarter page; create rewards that bring people on as Associate and Executive Producers, include an email address at the bottom for people who want to invest more in the film by purchasing 1% of your film’s LLC. Create a Facebook page and global ads for your campaign that are driven specifically to people who like similar content to your Film and then narrow that audience to people who also like Kickstarter. Sell percentages of the film to cool and interested people: they will become your Hollywood.

Finding Producers

Hire your friends. Do not wait for or approach producers who you don’t know, imagining that they’ll be fair to you in a contract. Recruit producers who you like, who have made cool stuff on small budgets, who can be scrappy. Empower the juggernauts around you, and if you don’t know any, ask people who do (ask me!). There is also an incredible Facebook group called “I Need a Producer” that is open to anyone, and by posting about your project you will get submissions and meetings with talented people in your area. My Producer’s name is Natalie Metzger, she’s wonderful and always here to help:

Actual Pre-production

PRODUCTION TEAM — Set meetings. You are welcome to have them at our offices anytime. Get close with your production team. Share the podcast with them. Discuss everything. Know exactly what needs to be in the frame at all times. Basically, produce it with them until a few days before production.

LOCATIONS — Find your locations by asking on Facebook, Craigslist, AirBNB, or by dropping hand-written letters at good candidates.

CAST — Never wait for celebrities, make celebrities. Find the people who get it. Who you could tell this story with, and who are up to the challenge of making their performance a showcase of their abilities, people who can give you options in rehearsal but who will spend their own time rehearsing it to make it perfect and form-fit to the story.

CREW — Cast your crew with people your DP and Producers trust, who are also willing to be scrappy. Find people who are talented and enthusiastic. Hire people who you want to eat and drink with.

5. PRODUCTION

No jerks on set.

Work harder than anyone else. Hurry everywhere. Be incredibly kind and loud. You are a camp counselor. If people are noisy before a take, say “Quiet is nice. Quiet is nice.” Never be rude. Apologize. Always be lovely to everyone, your crew is carrying heavy equipment up flights of stairs for you.

Be kind. That shouldn’t have to be said (our industry is insane). Make sure people are happy and every department is genuinely listened to. Schedule a meeting at the wrap of each week for each department to raise any issues to prevent problems in the coming days.

Hire an on-set editor (if you can), have them set up at production headquarters. Invite everyone to watch dailies. Be as inclusive as you can, this is a learning experience for everyone and it can help the crew to better understand the language of film in general. It’s also fun. This is a family.

SOUND

Record “wild-lines” and wild-sounds in every location immediately after you camera-wrap a scene. This is crucial. You’ll need it in post.

Great sound makes the movie. Hire an on-set sound mixer who is constantly conscious of the quality of the sound. Be considerate of how sound can help to tell your story via transitions and elementally in each scene. Buy or borrow a Zoom recorder and play with it. Lay sounds into a scene to make it feel fuller; it’s always a surprise to see how much it betters a scene.

6. POST-PRODUCTION

THE EDIT

Use Adobe Premiere. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you anything else. AVID spends a lot of money to convince people to join their cult of clunky, expensive, and complicated bullshit; Kodak 2.0. If you know how to edit, amazing, if not, hire someone who will spend the time that is needed to make your film a masterpiece. Stay up late. For weeks, stay up late. Finish the film. Tweet that you need commercial work throughout. Get a day job, come home and edit.

(Also, learn how to edit on YouTube. Everybody’s doing it.)

COLOR

Hire a colorist who you like and trust (here’s ours: Bossi Baker). Never feel bad about pushing back. Bossi once said to me, ‘Dude, let’s make it perfect. I’m on for a week, you’re the one who has to be happy with it for the rest of your life.’

7. DISTRIBUTION AND ADVERTISING

Deliver the film. Export it. It’s done. Host screenings for friends, submit it to film festivals based on this FilmFreeway list, if you have the money, invest in an Indee.tv account because it’s fucking incredible and you can watermark your screeners and also see how much of the film people watch. Otherwise, upload it to Vimeo with a password protection and submit it to fests (it is ok to submit a screener without a final mix or color, just keep uploading new versions to the same link through Vimeo’s incredible “Replace Video” functionality).

Cut a trailer. Make a poster. Make them cool; they have to be cool. Reach out to press through film festival’s Attending Press Lists and ask them kindly to write something about the short film or trailer which is being released next week. Use twitter to reach out to your heroes, ask for advice!

Reach out to the Vimeo Staff on twitter! Ask them to consider your short film as a Vimeo Staff Pick!

DISTRIBUTION:

Classic Distribution

You own the film. You now have the ability to impersonate the job of a distributor by selling your film to buyers in different territories around the world, entirely on your own.

To find film buyers, most hire a sales agent, but you won’t need one, you can become one. Google the buyers and distributors of your favorite or similar films in each territory. Here is a list of Film Buyers on Wikipedia. Find them on LinkedIn or Twitter. DM, Email, or call them: “Hi, I’m representing the film ________ and I’m wondering if I can send a screener for consideration in your territory.” Send the Indee.tv link, you’ll be notified when they watch it, and how much of it they watched. Reach out to the filmmakers who have worked with them in the past. Ask about their deal, most are very cool and transparent about it. Ask the distributors to make an offer. You are now a distributor.

We met a wonderful team of French distributors called Paname and they distributed Thunder Road across France this September. Altogether, so far, the film has made more than $500,000 USD through French ticket sales alone. We’re currently making deals for French TV and Blu-Ray sales as well.

Aren’t they lovely?

Self-distribution:

Start a Quiver account, create a project for your film to be released on iTunes and any other platform that you can afford.

It takes 60 days for iTunes to release the title after everything is delivered, set the pre-sale window to 30 days before the release. Tastefully post about it everywhere.

Release the trailer on Facebook, YouTube, and Vimeo only when the iTunes pre-order link goes live. Make square videos for Instagram (under 15 seconds). Post the trailer to Reddit.

Create Facebook Ads for people who like movies that are similar to yours. Narrow this audience to people who also like the iTunes store and trailers. Include the pre-order link as a button under the trailer: this allows audiences to be two thumb clicks away from buying your movie.

8. Hollywood

Only 18% of the music industry’s income last year went to musicians. This is not the future of the film industry, because all of our underlying grandeur and infrastructure is becoming democratized. A lot of the industry was created as a Social Network to separate the stars and creators from the public. These organizations started as glorified mailing addresses and call centers created to prevent fans from finding the homes of the famous, but with the advent of Social media, and even electronic mail, these older gates have less and less utility.

By building Facebook ads that hit your exact audience, you are doing the work of 25 people in any distribution company or studio, for free, and you are doing it cheaply and better and you still own the film.

9. Work/Life Balance

This one is hard. I’m not going to pretend to be good at it. It’s not easy. Be nice to your partner, if you have one. It’s ok to relax. It’s ok to take a break. Making movies with your best friends can be an endorphin rush, your brain is surged with excitement and oxytocin and the aftermath of that experience can feel like a vacuum. You may feel lonely while spending your nights struggling to make this dream come true for your team in the editing room. Change before you have to, and if you are down and out, I am always just a Facebook call away.

Overall, you are the person who does the thing. You make movies, everybody else just talks about it. People will bring you in for meetings just to talk, it’s a compliment! They’re looking for an in-office field trip to meet the factory workers. If you’re lucky you’ll get a ton of those. Hollywood often idolizes nice clothes and business talk, it emulates the Winklevoss Twins, but never forget that along this new landscape, you are inventing Facebook on a laptop in your dorm room (in pajamas) and that’s ok. Your ability to “seize the means of production”, your potential to grow an audience for yourself, and your wherewithal to self-distribute will often remove these people from their professional necessity and eventually their relevance.

You know what you want to be. Work in a way that maximizes that future.


Here are many of the Official Selection Short Films of Sundance and SXSW. I regularly turn to these to guide my metronome for what artwork is considered currently significant by the people who watch everything.

https://www.shortoftheweek.com/channels/sundance-films/ https://www.shortoftheweek.com/channels/sxsw-collection/

The 2018 Short to Feature Lab Fellows

*This guide was written by me, a dude who has had the privilege of learning every job on a film set, who produced and edited videos for 10 years, and learned what made ineffective films not work from the inside before making movies on his own. It is often based on the presumption that you know how to edit video and that you’ll be handling a lot of the post-production yourself or with friends and inexpensive partners. If not, I will provide other helpful insight however needed. If you believe that these are unrealistic achievements, or that I am the victim of Survivor’s Bias, know that I once believed that too, and that while you say “I can’t”, pout and cross your arms, someone else is taking your spot.

-Jim Cummings

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