Making A Movie: Five Things I Wish I'd Known

"Making a Movie" is a series of columns that chronicles our attempt to make, market, and distribute a film with Stephen Tobolowsky in 2014

It's been an intensely busy summer as I've struggled to keep up with my full-time job, my podcasts, and my film. But we are now closing in on the finish line. The official submission deadline for Sundance, our first desired festival, was August 29th, and we mailed a nearly-finished version of our film in just in time. A few color and sound issues remain to be finalized, but otherwise The Primary Instinct is 99.9% done, and almost ready for submission to a bunch of other festivals in the weeks to come.

As I look back on the past few months, there are a bunch of things I wish I'd done differently. As one indie producer put it to me, there is a steep learning curve for independent filmmaking, but it gets easier every time. Unfortunately, this was my first time, but hopefully some of you can learn from my mistakes. After the jump, you'll find a few things I wish I'd known going into this whole process. These things will be obvious to anyone who's made a film, but for me, they were a learning experience.

1) Lawyers and E&O insurance – If you've made a film and want to get any conventional form of distribution, you are likely going to need to something called E&O insurance, or Errors & Omissions Insurance. E&O insurance essentially protects you in the event that claims arise from the film. For instance, let's say you've filmed a scene where two characters are interacting in a cafe but you accidentally left the background music in the film and neglected to get permission for the music. The music label might sue you for unlawful/unlicensed usage. E&O insurance would help cover any costs that arise from this event, or many others like it.

The cost of E&O insurance itself can run anywhere from $3K upwards. In the case of our film (and many others, I believe), we also needed a lawyer outside the insurance company to look over it and write a "Letter of Opinion" stating that he believes our film is on legally solid footing when it comes to things like usage of people's images or film clips. That can also run about $3K, since they need to watch the film and then render a legal opinion.

So, all told, E&O is typically a minimum of $6K. These costs add up, and I didn't really budget for them when I launched the Kickstarter. Even with our surplus pledges, all parties involved in the making of the film have had to go out-of-pocket to help complete it. Had I known more, I probably would've approached the planning process a little differently.

Now, you could theoretically self-release a film with NO E&O insurance and be totally fine – it's unlikely a major studio or music label (or any other random party) would sue the pants off a tiny film that gives them little possibility of monetary reward. But would you really want to take that risk?

[It should also be pointed out that sometimes in a situation where your film is acquired, the distributor will often pay for E&O insurance as part of the deal. But again, it's still something that must be taken care of, and from my POV, it's better to just get it over with sooner rather than later, as a lot of paperwork is required.]

2) Camera choices - When we did a live performance shoot with Stephen, we used two different kinds of cameras: Two Sony broadcast cameras as the primary close-up and wide shots, and a bunch of REDs. The Sony cameras we used offered a lot of benefits, the biggest one being that due to their sensor size, it was very easy to keep Stephen in focus for the duration of the concert. Moreover, because the Sony cameras could easily be integrated into a live switched feed, I was able to leave the theater that night with a usable version of the film. This was a huge load of off my mind when it came to fulfilling our ultimate Kickstarter reward, the film itself.

Using color grading, we've been able to do a lot to get those cameras to match the look of the RED cameras (and vice versa). But because they are such vastly different cameras, matching their exact "look" has been an enormous challenge and caused untold number of headaches. Since I am the director of the film, I accept any responsibilities for the film's visual issues, but had I known more or been more experienced, I probably would have opted to use all RED cameras to ensure that all the cameras matched and that the film looked as "cinematic" as possible.

3) Sound mixing and color grading – Again, this is incredibly obvious to anyone who's ever done any serious film work, but I really wish I'd budgeted more time to do sound mixing and color grading. Of the two, the grading was less time consuming for us (simply because, in a concert film documentary, there just isn't a huge variety of shots to grade), but in general it should be done with an experienced colorist on a color-calibrated monitor and these things take money and time to resource.

The sound mix needed to be sent away to an experienced party. I checked with several sound mixing professionals and most of them were willing to give me a discount due to the indie nature of this film (plus they were fans of Stephen), but even with that discount the estimates they gave me were around $3,000-4,000 for the mix, which required a total of about 6-8 business days. The money itself isn't that much in isolation, but again, ancillary costs add up. Plus, the biggest factor was time. Given our incredibly short timeline for completing the film in time for festival submissions in the fall, a 6-8 business day time commitment really ate into the little time we had.

For The Primary Instinct, the sound mix was important in eliminating a bunch of plosive sounds and other abnormalities from Stephen's sound mix in the concert. I'm really pleased with the final sound mix, which sounds pretty professional overall.

Side note: the following video shows you what it was like to edit the film — seven hours of editing condensed into a few minutes. Thanks to one of our editors, Jason Hakala, for putting up with me throughout the entire painstaking process.

4) Feedback is good - In the early days after we'd finished "principal photography" for our film, getting feedback from as many people as possible was essential to the filmmaking process. Having known and worked with Stephen for many years, I needed an outsider's perspective on what worked and what didn't work, what info we should give and what wasn't necessary. I sent out password-protected links to a bunch of people and their brutally honest feedback helped mold the film into what it ultimately became. In fact, had I known how useful this would be, I would've been even more explicit and systematic about enlisting people's help in this process.

As time went on and we got closer and closer to picture lock, people's feedback became less important and less useful. It simply wasn't practical for me to incorporate significant changes when I was already at the sound mixing stage and picture was already locked.

It was often challenging for me to find a balance between taking someone's advice vs. going with my gut. But, to paraphrase what a friend once said to me, the advice you want to follow is that advice which makes you realize, "This is always what I've felt all along but have been afraid or unable to verbalize." Alternatively, the advice you don't want to follow is that which might sound logical, but which you know in your heart to not align with your vision. Which leads me to my next point...

5) Movie length - When we finished filming Stephen's live show back in May, the resulting film ended up having a 1 hour and 45 minute runtime. This comprised two of Stephen's stories in their entirety, and they were both great stories, well-told. But it is also really lengthy for a one-man concert film documentary.

I had many conversations with my friend and colleague, Dan Trachtenberg, about the film and he made some pretty drastic suggestions about what we should do. So in July, we made the very difficult decision to remove an entire story from the film, cutting its length by about 30 minutes. What I should have realized early on is that even though we were filming a live show, a film is different than a live show. A live show is basically like a buffet: You are presented with a bunch of options that you probably weren't aware of beforehand and you eat whatever's there. A live performer can speak on any number of topics, and as long as the audience is enjoying it, it doesn't really matter what it all adds up to in the end. It doesn't necessarily need to have an overall thesis or cohere into a whole.

A film is different. In order for a film to be good or great, all components of a film need to feel like they have a purpose or a reason to be there. With two separate stories in the film, our movie felt like the melding of two disparate components rather than one cohesive whole (or an enjoyable evening of storytelling, which it actually was in real life). So, we had to kill our darlings. We had to remove a massive chunk of the movie.

This actually led us dangerously close into another issue, which is that we nearly made the film too short. The Academy specifies that anything under 60 minutes is a short film, and festivals often give a 50-minute minimum for feature length films. (For fests, short films are defined as being 50 minutes or under, but due to programming reasons, it's often optimal to make/submit a short film that's less than 15 minutes long). The ultimate runtime of The Primary Instinct is a little bit over 73 minutes, which I think is the perfect length for a movie of our kind. But had I thought more thoroughly through these issues at the outset, I may have been able to steer the ship a little differently and been more planful about the final product.


That's all for now. As you can tell, I have learned a lot from this process (much of which might be regarded as basic to those of you who've gone to film school or made your own films), but I'm ultimately very proud of the film that's resulted and grateful to those of you who helped to make it possible in our Kickstarter. I hope some of the above is able to help those of you going through similar things.

Next time, I'll talk about all the things I learned about the film festival submission process in the course of submitting The Primary Instinct. Click here to read past issues of this column.