About a year ago, I got woke.
Not woke in the sense of the prevailing social consciousness—though, as an African American woman, my awakening plays its own role in the larger social political narrative. But in this case, I’m talking about film and the realization that I was wasting my time submitting my screenplay The Revisionist to pitchfests and contests. I was hoping that somebody would transform it into a movie. Instead, in a flash of insight, I realized that “somebody” was me.
I decided I was going to put whatever money I could raise or find aside, whether it was $10,000 or $10 million, and bring my story to life. It would be good, and Netflix would buy it. And my career as a screenwriter and producer would be established.
That sounds very lofty and a little crazy, considering I didn’t know anything about filmmaking. I’ve written more than 25 books (including ghostwriting several for TV celebrities), produced an off-Broadway play, and was involved in producing for a couple of amateur musical theater companies. I’ve written television pilots that did well in competitions and garnered a little bit of interest. But at the time, I’d never even looked through the lens of a production worthy camera. I’d never made a short film. I’d never been on a movie set. I knew nothing about film distribution or financing. I didn’t know a grip from gaff. The alphabet soup of unions and their requirements made my head hurt.
Fast forward to now, a year later. Here I am with a fully-financed $10 million film and an Academy-award nominated actress attached for the lead role. It’s in the last stages of development, and predicted to go into principal photography in the fall of this year. I wrote it. And I produced it. AHH!!!
It’s been a real rollercoaster of an experience, and the ride is far from over. Still, I highly recommend becoming your own somebody if you’re a screenwriter who’s grown tired of waiting and hoping for “somebody” to show up. Sometimes YOU need to show up before anyone else will. Here are five things I learned that might help you along the way:
1. Get Help
Screenwriting is just one of the skills involved in the long list of abilities needed to make a movie, and no one person can master them all. You can learn a lot through online and in-person workshops about film production. But in the end, you’re going to need people with experience to guide you through the process and help you avoid the pitfalls that will stop your project in its tracks.
My producing partner has many of the skills I’m missing. He’s got more business experience and is a master in the fine art of the verbal pitch. I’m the goddess of the written pitch and breaking down what he calls, “the 40 thousand feet view” into concrete action steps. It works.
2. You Need to Have Some Money
I’ve found the saying, “It takes money to make money” to be entirely true. Fortunately for me, I had some. Not enough, but some, and I deployed it to maximum advantage by hiring:
- A consulting producer who brought his industry contacts and filmmaking experience to the project.
- A line producer to do a full budget and schedule.
- A casting agency to help me attract talent.
I spent around $50K. Yes. You read that right. In order to get the ball moving, I spent more than $50,000 on The Revisionist before I found any outside financing. But spending that money put me on the path to GET the financing my movie needed– not just because I had a good script, but because I developed the film into something that looked like a good investment.
3. Images are Everything
Despite laboring over the perfect words, this is a visual medium. So of course, I needed strong images to help me raise money, attract talent and publicize The Revisionist. I started with a movie poster and sought help on 99designs.com– a website that allows you to submit your specific needs for artists around the world to draft and bid on the design job. The top two contenders were these posters:
These strong clean visuals have helped the project immeasurably. I’ve used them both in pitch decks and correspondence with film partners. I also worked with the same designer on a lookbook and logo. You get what you pay for, and they communicate my seriousness and investment to prompt others to sign on to this quality project.
4. The Script Matters
The Revisionist is about a successful novelist who is given a supernatural opportunity to “revise” her life after her son’s sudden suicide, in the hopes of saving him. On the surface it’s a story about alternate realities, but more than that, it’s about the expectation of work-life balance for successful women and the struggle to own the work they love and their roles as wife and mother simultaneously. It’s a good story, if I say so myself.
Even with a casting agency to help me, having a good script was critical to attracting talent—especially in the early stages when I didn’t yet have the financing. Actors and directors and their managers care about projects that help shape their careers. Strong, unique work is the foundation of building relationships that can help give a project lift.
5. The Script Doesn’t Matter
Even the greatest script in the world will only get you so far.
This might be the hardest lesson I’ve learned in shifting my role from screenwriter to producer. As a writer, you hyperfocus on the script. Every sentence and every word is crafted lovingly and carefully. The dialogue is tweaked endlessly. The plot points are carefully arranged and delineated. A whole world is in those pages.
But as a producer, my carefully crafted script was a very malleable part of the whole puzzle. It was an asset to be used and exploited to get to the final destination: a movie that is both noteworthy and financially profitable.
Each time a new player joined The Revisionist team, the script was rewritten– to fit more solidly into genre-marketing, to attract a stronger male lead actor, to satisfy director notes. And there will likely be more revisions to fit budget and shooting schedule requirements.
It’s not that the script doesn’t matter… but it’s not an untouchable final product. It has to be flexible and fluid. It can’t be set in stone. And as a producer/screenwriter, you have to roll with the changes.
So those are my top five. There are many other lesson and things I’ve learned on this journey, so stay with us here on the blog and on social media!