As an independent producer, there are many components and elements that must be identified, gathered, developed and finessed in concert with one another to create a movie. These tasks can often overwhelm even the most dedicated or driven producer, and it is no secret that most projects fail to get made. One of the biggest, if not the biggest, challenge that independent producers face is the challenge of legitimatizing their project in the eyes of the various sectors of the entertainment industry—making it a legitimate investment to investors, a legitimate creative project to talent and a legitimate product to sales agents and distributors.
In light of my experience producing Veronika Decides to Die, based on the novel by Paulo Coelho and starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and Melissa Leo, I offer the following advice to my fellow independent producers:
1. Attract Investors
One of the best ways to confer legitimacy is to base the project on a piece of material, i.e. an existing film, novel or short story. Not only does underlying material provide a creative baseline for the project, but the popularity or critical acclaim of the material also provides investors with a metric by which to judge the appeal of that story to the general public. By contrast, spec scripts and original pitches are inherently more unknown and therefore more of a risk to potential investors.
2. Attract Creative Talent
Basing a project on a good piece of material is an excellent way for an independent producer to attract talent, including talent that might otherwise be considered out of the producer’s league. If the title or the author of the originating material is well-known, the project will have the natural advantage of that name recognition. Underlying material also gives potential collaborators a vision of the story—something that can be developed as needed—but a solid starting point nonetheless. The security and legitimacy conferred by underlying material allows an independent producer to reach for whomever he wants in the project.
3. Set Yourself Apart From the Crowd
Now that the entry costs for making a film are so low (thanks to affordable digital cameras and editing software), there is an overabundance of content in the marketplace. Having a well-regarded piece of original material as a basis for a project can really help an independent producer rise above the clamor and attract the attention of buyers.
4. Give Yourself Guidance
An established piece of underlying material also provides creative guidance to me as a producer. For a young producer like myself, this is especially helpful. Having this creative baseline helps keep the “big picture” in focus even while dealing with the chaotic minutia of assembling a project.
5. Don’t Skimp on the Screenwriter
Good underlying material does not, in and of itself, make a good movie. A good adaptation takes skill and care, and its success rests in large part on the shoulders of the screenwriter. It is crucial to hire a very strong screenwriter, even when that means spending more money on development.
If you accomplish all of the above you are well on your way to a good, and most importantly, financeable package. On Veronika Decides to Die, we hired Larry Gross, an accomplished screenwriter, to adapt Paulo Coelho’s novel, and were able to put together a solid package within nine months and be in production within a year.
Good luck to all of you out there!