15 Sexy Things You Get to Do When You Think Your Film is Finished
Okay, you’ve spent seven years making your indie opus, another two years playing the festival circuit, and somewhere along the way you even managed to sell your film and get distribution. Hooray, you’re done and the party’s over! Your goal by this point is undoubtedly to move on and start working on the next film.
But, wait a second, just because you’ve “sold” your film and you “got” distribution doesn’t mean your job as a filmmaker is “done” (or that you need to stop using “air quotes”). On the contrary, you’re still staring at a 20-to-life sentence for your film. Here’s a few of the top sexy (and by “sexy,” I mostly mean “crappy”) things you still need to do. Even if you’re just starting your film project, you should read below; you can avoid a lot of future aggravation if you know what you’re heading into and prepare appropriately.
Whole articles can and have been written about what you need for deliverables. Simply, they are the things you have to deliver to your distributor before they’ll even think of paying you. Broadly, deliverables consist of paperwork (E&O insurance, chain of title, cast/crew contracts, production notes, receipts, dialogue list, etc.) and all your physical/digital elements (the movie itself, sound stems, M&E mix, DVD extras, key art, poster, trailers, etc.).
Now if you and your team were on the ball from preproduction through post, you’ll undoubtedly have most of this paperwork already stashed in binders and folders somewhere. Better still, you’ll have it all digitized in one handy hard drive or cloud-based system. But, if not, you can count on endless hours of scanning, emailing, Dropboxing and searching for all these documents. And, by this point, you won’t have an army of production assistants and interns to do the scanning for you. So, if you’re about to make your film, remember to try to get as much of this administrative work done during production, while people are still eager and available to help.
Try to get a single hard drive to put all your “physical” elements on. Your film itself might be the simplest thing. But make sure you’ve got all your soundtracks, stems, mixes, etc., and make sure everything has the same 2-pop on it. Just because we’re living in a digital age doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put old-school SMPTE 2-pops on every track. And, beware: just when you think your post and delivery work is done, some pimply-faced kid in your distributor’s QC (quality control) department will catch a bizarre glitch on one frame of film and make you redo everything.
Or, worse, he will not catch something he should have. On my last film, Between Us, we thought we’d delivered all our 5.1 audio tracks at the same time as the film. It turns out we were missing a few surround channels on our drive, and we had to go back to the sound house (which fortunately hadn’t dumped them) and deliver them two weeks later to our distributor. By then, the distributor had laid their seven-second logo over our 2-pops and proceeded to put our surround channels in what they thought was the beginning of the film. The QC guy didn’t catch it, and the surrounds were now seven seconds out of sync! It took months of aggravation to sort things out.
The worst part about the deliverables process is that just when you think you’ve got it all delivered, your distributor will gently remind you that you’ve got one more thing left to do before they’ll pay you. And just when you’ve finished that, you’ll get a new distributor — maybe this time a foreign sales agent — who will give you a deliverables list that is at least somewhat different from what your first distributor demanded. And did you have a nice post or sound house that gave you all those late-night freebies to get your mix done in time for Sundance? Guess what? They won’t be so nice to you when you go back a year later and ask for even more work on your deliverables. So get that M&E mix and full 5.1 done while you’re doing your first festival mix. That may well be the last time you’re allowed to set foot in your sound house.
2. E&O Insurance
Errors and Omissions insurance is almost always required when you get distribution. As the name implies, it covers you and your distributor for all the legal crap you probably forgot to take care of when you were actually making the film. There’s only a handful of companies that do E&O for indie films, and you’ve got to do your due diligence and get bids from a least a couple. But E&O isn’t cheap — plan on around $5,000 for a feature. In the old days you could probably squeak by without E&O if the network or distributor agreed to cover you on their general E&O policy (Sundance Channel used to do this), but I’m not sure how often that happens today, even with the smaller VOD companies.
3. Repair Relationships
Suck it up if you can. Pucker up if you must. Lawyer up if you have to.
If you’ve gotten this far in the process, you’ve probably pissed someone off: an investor, a producer, a spouse, a key grip, a post house, a makeup artist with a litigious father, who knows? But someone will be mad at you, and even more so when they hear you’ve been traipsing around the globe to glamorous film festivals. Or worse, when they see you humble-bragging on Facebook that you’ve sold your film for what they can only imagine is an ungodly sum of riches. This is the price of “success” for an indie filmmaker. But unless you plan on changing your name and moving to Trinidad (to say nothing of Tobago), you need to find a way to salvage these relationships or they will haunt you for years: emotionally, financially or legally. Do whatever apologies, IMDb credit-giving, therapy or promises you need, but get over these spoiled relationships and move on.
4. Promote Your Friggin’ Movie
Whether you get a full-service distribution sale with a mini major, a little VOD deal with a small company, or you are self-distributing out of your garage, if you want people to see your film you have to get involved. No one’s going to work harder than you to promote your film. So, just because your distributor has an in-house publicist, or you paid out of pocket for an independent marketer, booker or publicist, you can’t slack off when your film is released.
When I self-distributed Omaha (the movie), I stood in front of the old Laemmle Sunset Five in L.A. for 13 weeks with a sandwich board passing out fliers. When my recent film Between Us was getting a 50-city theatrical release from a small distributor, I was still calling theater managers in Sheboygan, doing podcasts in Hollywood, Skyping in Q&As when I could and live-tweeting Q&As when I couldn’t. The advantage this time was that I was working with an infrastructure of a distributor who could do most of the bookings, ads and underlying PR. I could focus a bit more on the fun stuff, but it was no less work than with my other films. That’s partly how I chose the distributor, Monterey Media, in the first place: Was this a company that would keep the director at arm’s length because “they know better,” or was it one that would harness the energy of the filmmaker to work together to promote the movie? Fortunately, it was the latter.
And just because your film is going straight to VOD, or is enjoying a gentle Netflix or Amazon deal, doesn’t mean you’re off the hook in terms of shameless self-promotion. On the contrary: If your film is on Netflix and nobody knows it’s on Netflix, is it really on Netflix? This is where your thousands of social media fans and followers come into play. Strap on a digital sandwich board and get pimpin’! Put out press releases, get your actors tweeting, Photoshop President Obama inspecting your DVDs at an Amazon distribution warehouse — whatever it takes to keep getting the word out there! If you think it took a sustained effort to do your crowd-funding campaign, double that effort to actually release the film. Even if you never make a dime for your investors, cast or crew, they’ll never be able to fault you for not working hard enough to try.
5. DVD Extras
Arguably one of the most fun parts of finishing a film is now sadly one of the least in demand. Until Netflix and other streaming services figure out a way for audiences to listen to commentary tracks and watch deleted scenes or other bonus material, the era of the extras-stuffed DVD are over. That said, putting all these bonus materials together has other advantages.
For one thing, most of your extras — at least the video ones — are very well suited for YouTube or Vimeo. At some point you’re going to want to embed them into your personal website, Facebook page or your Kickstarter campaign for your next film.
You can still post your commentary or other audio tracks onto podcasts, or audio sharing sites like SoundCloud. Rian Johnson, for one, did this for the theatrical release of Looper, and I just posted mine for Between Us.
Speaking of those relationships you need to repair, let your bitter makeup assistant (the one with the grumpy Century City lawyer father) do her own commentary track. And did you have a scene you had to cut out? The one featuring your own wife and kids as glorified extras to make them happy? Put it on your DVD, and you’ll always have a perfectly preserved home movie you’ll be able to find!
One warning about extras: They will sneak up on you, so work on them early. One minute you’ll sign a deal with a distributor, and the next minute they’ll want you to deliver your extras within two weeks. All that behind-the-scenes footage you diligently took on set isn’t going to edit itself. Get crackin’ and start editing on flights between festivals!
6. Crowd-Funding Perks
Remember all those perks you promised your Kickstarter supporters? Chances are some of them included DVDs or digital downloads of the finished film, or other perks you couldn’t deliver until after making the film. You may have forgotten about them, but your backers haven’t. But perhaps more important than the perks, are the updates. Your backers primarily got behind you because they wanted to take part vicariously in your filmmaking journey. So, keep sending out those updates, with both the good news and the bad. An updated backer will want to back your next film. And if, God forbid, you need to do another Kickstarter campaign to pay for your E&O insurance, you’ll want to make sure your first set of backers sticks with you.
Unless you’ve set up your film through some shadowy entity in the Cayman Islands, chances are you’re going to have to deal with taxes at some point. And that point is probably once a year, on April 15. So, even if you haven’t made money on your film, you’ve still got to tell the IRS about it. Hey, you might even get a nice deduction (assuming you have any other income to deduct from).
If you’re in California, for example, every LLC, LP or corporation has to file taxes and pay a minimum of $800 for as long as the business entity exists. Other states vary, but if you file in Delaware, and work out of a fetid hipster garage in Silver Lake, the California state government will still want their $800 a year. Even if you’ve never set up a formal entity for your film and just run the money through your mattress, at some point, you will have some ‘splaining to do to The Man.
And who’s going to file those taxes for you? Last time I checked, most of you who went to New York University and University of Southern California became MFAs, not CPAs. So that means finding an accountant. And not just your Aunt Harriet who’s a whiz at TurboTax: It’s got to be someone who fully understands the vagaries of filmmaking and also how to handle partnership or corporate filings with multiple investors and/or crowd-funded donors. They’ve got to know the distinction between IRS code Section 181 (for film tax deductions) and Section 180 (for fertilizer deductions for farmers). As far as the IRS is concerned, it’s all just shit you can deduct, so your accountant better know the difference and know whether these deductions are even still allowed.
If you’ve got any kind of a partnership or corporation with investors, one of the most important things to do is issue them K-1 forms every spring (kind of like a 1099 for investors). Hopefully you’ve got well-heeled, arts-patronly investors who don’t mind that they won’t be making any money. But no matter how forgiving they may be about their investment itself, they will not be forgiving if their K-1s are late.
If an investor is filing taxes by April 15, that means they’re meeting their accountant no later than March 15 to hand them all of their K-1s and 1099s. That means that you need to get with your accountant no later than Feb. 15 so they have time to issue your K-1s. Your investor will be mighty pissed if the K-1 is so late that their accountant has to file an extension on their taxes. It may not cost them more in taxes, but it will cost them more in accounting fees.
Oh, and if you are like me, and you’ve got investors who happen to be farmers, there’s another little thing they didn’t teach you at Tisch: Most farmers (and fishermen, too!) in the U.S. are required to file their taxes on March 1, not April 15. So, that means you need to do everything six weeks earlier: Meet with your accountant in early January and issue your K-1s by the first week of February, if not sooner. If you ever see me in Park City during Slamdance huddling over my MacBook Pro between screenings, chances are I’m frantically checking bank records, doing Excel spreadsheets and calling my accountant in L.A.
10. Write Checks
One of the coolest things you might hope to do at least once in your life is to write checks to your investors. It is such an anomaly in this business, and hopefully your investors appreciate how rare it is. The only downside is that in order to write checks, you have to a) keep strict spreadsheets on how you’re divvying up your money proportionately; b) find your checkbook (which you probably haven’t used in the three years since production); and c) find one of your producing partners (because you oh-so-responsibly set up your account years ago to require dual signatures).
Assuming your producing partners haven’t all taken off to Louisiana to work in TV production, and you find a mutually free time to get together to write checks, then it also means stuffing envelopes, addressing said envelopes, writing a nice updated cover letter, buying stamps and going to the post office. While you’re at it, you should also send them all DVDs of the film. A satisfying experience, yes, but still very time consuming. Oh, and you’d better make sure that you’ve got everyone’s current addresses, or you’ll be paying $31 per cancelled check when you realize a year later than an investor may have moved crosstown, but his ex-wife didn’t.
One downside to writing checks to your investors: If they happen to be from a state other than yours (i.e. Nebraska investors, if your LLC is based in California), then your accountant has to issue them a separate out-of-state investor form, and they’ll probably need to file taxes in your home state as well as their own. It may not cost them much more in taxes, but it will be a drag on their own accountants. But if you’re to the point where you’re even writing checks, then it’s a small price to pay for success, right? They should be so lucky!
Filmmakers used to never worry about residuals — those fun little payments that actors, writers and directors mysteriously get every time one of their movies runs on late-night — all that much. Everyone just assumed that someone else was responsible for them. And back in the old days, when getting distribution meant signing with a reputable specialized wing of a Hollywood studio, that is pretty much what happened. Upon acquiring a film, distributors would automatically sign “assumption agreements” and legally assume responsibility for residual payments. But while the mini-majors will still sign those agreements, plenty of new, smaller distributors and aggregators won’t.
What that means is that in four or five years, SAG (and the other guilds you might have dealt with) will come knocking on the door of whoever signed the original production agreement (probably you) and say, “Ahem! Your film’s been playing on Showtime for the last eight months and is on VOD in Sri Lanka. You now owe $10,000 in residuals!”
Rather than wait for that dreaded knock — and scary letters from SAG’s lawyers — you might proactively want to start paying residuals yourself (especially if you’re going to be one of the beneficiaries of them). But it’s not as simple as just writing a check to SAG. You actually have to go through one of the big Hollywood payroll companies. Even if you used a smaller (cheaper) payroll company for production, there are only a handful of the big boys who have specific residual departments.
The good news is they’re very nice about it and don’t charge an arm and a leg to work on residual payments (just a percentage). The bad news is that, even when an experienced payroll company is involved, calculating residuals can be difficult. The categories that the guilds use for different kinds of digital and TV platforms aren’t necessarily the same accounting categories that your distributor might use (and some actually go back to SAG’s 1984 contract). At her keynote speech in Toronto a couple of years ago, WME agent Liesl Copland coined the phrase “Analytic Black Holes.” Well, your residual accounting is about to get sucked into it. And as we learned in Interstellar, once you get sucked into a black hole, what seems like hours to you will be like years to the outside world. Oh, and since much of residuals are calculated as a percentage of “Distributor‘s Gross,“ rather than producer’s gross, it’s entirely conceivable that you’ll owe residuals on money that you, the filmmaker, haven’t even seen yet. Good luck with that!
Despite what your spouse may supportively, but adamantly, suggest about “dumping all that shit,” you actually do need to save a lot of what went into your film. If you’re lucky, your distribution deals will eventually expire, and you’ll be able to redistribute or relicense your film on some fancy new format or delivery platform that hasn’t been invented yet. Want to sell your cool 16mm film school shorts to people with $10,000 Apple Watches? Then you probably need to find those films and figure out how to digitize them first.
Whether you’ve got reels of negative, boxes of miniDVs or stacks of hard drives, the first step is figuring out where to put them. Yes, a nice temperature-controlled salt mine would be ideal, but that kind of archiving is expensive. You can also think about donating to the Library of Congress, your film school alma mater or a few other independent archives. (Sundance films might try the Sundance Institute Archives.) But the problem is, if you archive everything offsite somewhere, then you can’t easily access it, like when you decide to ditch indie filmmaking and recut your reel to get a TV directing job. So, if that means keeping stuff in your garage, attic or other not-exactly-temperature-controlled environment, make sure everything’s at least a foot off the ground to avoid flooding catastrophes, and a couple feet under your ceiling to avoid overheating. You should also make sure that at least one copy of your finished film itself (your most valuable asset) is with one or more of your producers or parents, preferably outside of your nuclear attack radius. Get another nicely labeled new hard drive stuffed with all your deliverables that you keep on a middle shelf. Indie vet Matthew Harrison (Rhythm Thief, Kicked in the Head) writes serial numbers on all his hard drives and keeps a running FileMaker Pro document with the directory of each drive. Then he puts the drives neatly in Uline cardboard boxes, with the serial numbers on the side.
For a more passive, long-term approach, you could also do what many TV networks are doing and store everything onto LTOs, which are magnetic tape cartridges that are supposed to outlast both hard drives and HD tapes. Indie filmmaker Sean Baker (Tangerine, Starlet, Takeout) just put most of his films (including all the extra deliverable materials) each onto a single LTO, with a text file explaining what everything is. Then he locked them in a safety deposit box at Chase Bank. Those LTOs should last 30 years, but whether anyone will still have an LTO deck to read them then is another issue. Filmmakers Kelly Reichardt and Larry Fessenden just did a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise $20,000 to do a new telecine of Reichardt’s first film, River of Grass (shot on 16mm), but they’ve got the support of Oscilloscope, Sundance Collection at the University of California-Los Angeles and TIFF helping them with the logistics and Kickstarter perks.
13. Escaping Your Distributor
You will spend half your life as a filmmaker trying to get a distributor, and the other half trying to get rid of your distributor. At some point, there’s a good chance your distributor will screw you, whether willingly or by simple neglect. If it’s the former, you’ll likely first need to hire an accountant to audit the distributor. Hope you have reserve money set aside for that! Then you’ll need to get a lawyer to extract yourself from the distributor’s iron grips — and not just your old production attorney, but quite possibly a litigator, too.
If you didn’t sign a deal with a division of a multinational entertainment conglomerate, it’s possible that your distributor will be a well-meaning but struggling company that will simply go bankrupt. I remember one call I got from a distributor of my film Open House, “Hi, Dan! The good news is we owe you $50,000. The bad news is we’re going out of business next week. Bye!” Either way, you’ll need to keep your lawyers and accountants on speed dial for at least the next 10 years.
14. Dissolving Your Entity
Even if your distributor doesn’t screw you, all your annual costs will mount up, especially taxes and accounting. Probably within three to five years, you’ll realize that you’re spending more money to keep your corporate entity alive than you’re bringing in. Time to write a nice letter to your investors and officially call it quits and move on. But to dissolve your LLC still requires new forms and filings with your state and the feds, and it takes time and some effort to deal with it (in other words, a few more billable hours for your accountant and/or lawyer).
The nice thing is, you’re still (more or less) allowed to keep your bank account open even for your dissolved LLC, as long as it’s not an interest-bearing account. Keep at least a few hundred bucks in there as a reserve to pay for hard drives, lawyers, auditing fees or otherwise setting up the next distribution deal. Your investors will be cool with that, as long as you explain it well. More importantly, keep your Excel spreadsheet updated with how you left things with your investors, actors, crew and, of course, any debts you might still owe.
15. Rinse, Repeat
When all’s said and done, try to make sure you’re still left standing with the rights to your film. If you were smart, you put a clause in your original LLC agreement that says you keep the film after dissolution and hopefully your distribution agreements say you keep the rights when they go bankrupt.
Within the last couple of years, I was able to sell the digital rights to my first film from 20 years ago, Omaha (the movie), to aggregator FilmBuff, which eventually got it onto Amazon, Fandor, Hulu and Vimeo. FilmBuff was able to digitize my old Betacam telecine (which had been stored for decades on a middle shelf in my garage and thankfully worked just fine). I still had an Excel spreadsheet with my investor allocations. I was able to track down all of the living investors and the heirs of a couple of the dead ones. I sent them very tiny checks (for some, as little as $8.14), and I wrote them a nice long cover letter, explaining how the film had performed and what its cultural impact had been over the years.
Perhaps it wasn’t the financial success we’d all hoped it’d become, but it did serve as a launch pad for Slamdance (which, by the way, all my investors had signed off on when we started the festival). Some of our crew members went on to amazing careers in their own rights (see Rian Johnson, Jon Bokenkamp and James Duff), and the film paved the way for such Nebraska filmmakers as Alexander Payne and Nik Fackler. The investors were thrilled to hear from me, and one (who himself had gone on to a very nice political career, ultimately serving as a cabinet secretary) wrote me a very moving, handwritten thank you letter.
So now, as I’m getting ready to raise money for the next film, I can point to my long-term commitment to my first investors as yet another selling point to my future investors and backers. It may take them 20 years to recoup their first eight dollars, but at least they’ll get their K-1s on time!