A cofounder of the Slamdance Film Festival, Dan Mirvish is also an award-winning indie film director. On top of that, he also recently wrote a book called The Cheerful Subversive’s Guide to Independent Film (Focal Press/Routledge). In this article, Dan takes us on a journey into the idea of visual presentation and what it can do to help the promotion of your film.
The book is a comprehensive guide to how to the craft and lifestyle of indie filmmaking, taking the reader from script through production, and on into the festival and distribution world.
In this exclusive excerpt, Dan follows up a chapter on how to put together a business plan with an emphasis that in this day and age, indie filmmakers can and should also start their projects with some sort of visual presentation. Regardless of whether you’re Kickstarting your little 10-minute short, or pitching yourself to direct a $100 million studio film.
Remember: It’s a Visual Medium
Beyond the traditional text-heavy business plan, increasingly people are expecting you to make some kind of visual presentation.
This can vary wildly, but might include storyboards, pre-vis animation, a lookbook, a mood board, a mood reel, a short film, trailer, a Kickstarter-style fundraising video or some combination of all of them.
On most of my films, I usually do a handful of storyboards early in the process.
Now, I’m not talking about the simple stick-figure storyboards a director might do to prepare for a particular scene or effects sequence. Rather, I mean full-color, full-page boards prepared by a real artist that are more illustrative of the tone, mood or style of various scenes in the movie.
Luckily, my old college roommate, Matt Fuller, is a professional commercial storyboard artist in LA, and for the price of a good meal I can usually get him to help me out on these.
I know my French director pal Frédéric Forestier has his childhood friend do the same.
One variation I’ve seen is at Pixar where they’ll do maybe a 20-panel grid just showing the color palette of the film as it progresses through different moods and tones. It’s a simple, but elegant technique that anyone can do with a 64-crayon box of Crayolas.
Either way, these are good visual elements to include in your business plan, website or other presentation material.
If you aren’t artistically minded at all, or if you simply have no friends, then what can you do?
Find other films that have the kind of style or technique you want to go for in your film. Get screen grabs of your favorite scenes, preferably wide shots that don’t really show any recognizable faces.
What you don’t want is a big close up of Harrison Ford in Blade Runner as a visual reference for your micro-budget sci-film. All your investors will wonder why you’ve cast your cousin Larry, and why you don’t have Harrison Ford in your movie.
If you’re good with Photoshop, blur out faces, or crop around them. It’s fine if these are recognizable films (you are telling people, after all, that it’s Blade Runner meets Kindergarten Cop — you may as well show stills from those).
Likewise, use any photography you can get your hands on — from perfume ads to car commercials.
Better yet, head out to some possible locations, set your DSLR in “still” mode and shoot some actual photographs. Strung together, laid out nicely, these can turn a boring text-heavy business plan into a sleek and sexy “lookbook!”
But wait a minute, aren’t films all about moving images?
That’s right! And with the advent of crowdfunding, there is now a whole new genre of short films that may as well be called “pitch cinema.”
Even if you’re not actually doing a crowdfunding campaign, per se, I think most investors these days expect to see some kind of video presentation.
This could be a short film upon which the feature will be based (I did this with my film Open House). It could be the scrawny director with bad posture leaning into the camera and begging for money. It could be a splashy mood reel with quick clips from other films, or it could be some combination.
Hey, if it’s good enough for Spike Lee and Zach Braff, it should be good enough for you!
Whatever you do, please don’t call it a “sizzle reel.” Unless you’re pitching a TV show. Then call it a sizzle reel to your heart’s delight, because that’s what they’re called in TV. But film? Not so much.
Keep in mind that for crowdfunding videos, you really don’t have to worry as much about copyright or music issues like you would with your movie itself, or even a trailer.
After all, you’re not commercially exploiting your pitch video itself. In fact, you may not even show it publicly at all (if, for example, it lives entirely on your Kickstarter page, or as a password protected Vimeo).
So that gives you much freer rein to snag clips from other movies, YouTube clips, stock footage or Grammy-winning songs for which you’d normally pay through the nose or avoid completely.
But don’t fall in love with these videos — if you don’t have all those rights, you won’t be able to put them on your DVD extras if and when you finish your film.
Meanwhile, if any of those rights holders do complain or get upset while you’re in mid-campaign, it’s easy enough to recut your video without the offending material or with the appropriate credit.
Kickstarter has a nice system where you can put subtitles onto your video. YouTube and Facebook’s are even easier.
Start with English, because your video’s probably in English. This is great accessibility for hearing-impaired potential contributors, but also for every potential donor in a coffeeshop who doesn’t want to share your audio with the rest of the world.
All these platforms have very easy editing tools to add captions or subtitles. But if you’re a bit savvy, you can also upload your subtitles through a “.vtt” file.
What does .vtt stand for? I have no idea. But basically it’s a TextEdit file with the suffix .vtt instead of .txt. There’s a bunch of websites that will show you examples. Essentially you put it together the same way indie filmmakers have been doing subtitles for years for festival, foreign distribution and DVD purposes.
My pal, director Matthew Harrison, figured out the nuts and bolts: You write down your subtitles in Text, then import into an Excel spreadsheet.
Then duplicate your Final Cut Pro (FCP) video sequence, add marks every time you want a new subtitle to start, and then export the subclips as a Text file (you can probably do something similar in Premiere or Avid, too).
Presto! You have a handy dandy list of start and stop points that you then copy/paste into Excel next to each subtitle line.
Export the whole thing to Word, clean up the paragraph or tab marks, and export back to TextEdit.
To do a .vtt file specifically, there’s one more trick where you have to convert frame numbers to milliseconds (hint: multiply by 33!), but otherwise, Matt’s technique is useable for almost any subtitle software.
The beauty of it is once you’re done, you can translate your subtitles into any language (either crowdsourcing from multilingual friends, or just copy / pasting into Google Translate), and export a new .vtt in less than five minutes. You never know when a potential Kickstarter donor will only understand French, Italian, Greek or Yiddish!
Finally, remember that if you’re putting together a video, this will likely be the first time your potential backers have seen your work as a filmmaker.
If your pitch video is lifeless and stilted, what makes us think your film will be any better?
To the extent that you can, you should give your pitch video the same tone and style of your eventual movie.
Does your movie have a skinny white guy stuttering directly to the camera asking for money? Unless it’s an infomercial for artisanal acne cream, then not damn likely. So why should your pitch video have that?
Be creative, have fun and use the video as a tool for yourself and your team to try out different styles, techniques, actors or locations that you plan to use in your movie.
My pitch cover for Between Us was based on a frame grab from Carnal Knowledge which had a similar tone to the film I was making. Ironically, my next film, Bernard and Huey, would be from a script by Jules Feiffer, the same screenwriter who wrote Carnal Knowledge.
I hope you’ve found this article instructive. Have any questions? Thoughts? Ideas? Let us know in the comments section below and we’ll be sure to answer you. And feel free to share this article with your friends and colleagues using the share buttons below the article!
Dan is currently in post-production on his latest feature film, Bernard and Huey, starring David Koechner and Oscar-winner Jim Rash.