Attendees at GloryReelz Christian Film Festival are in for a treat when it comes to the workshops and films being offered this year. One of those workshops is Doc Benson’s class on budgeting. He calls it “Big Dreams and Shoestring Budgets”, and it’s part of his Culdee Arts Initiative program.
Tell us about your filmmaking background.
I started in television as a News Producer, On-Air talent, and eventually a Station Manager. It was during the latter part of that path that I had the opportunity to appear in a movie with Kris Kristofferson entitled Disappearances. I watched the film making process on set, and was fascinated by the ballet of workmanship required to capture scenes on the day. All the crafts, working together, to bring to life the vision of the Director and Screenwriter. It was at that moment that I knew I wanted to make the move into feature films.
I spent the next five years studying everything I could on the art and business of motion pictures. I read books and scripts, watched classics, spoke with industry professionals, and even took classes on the process. In 2012 I produced and directed my first feature film, Seven Deadly Words. We saw remarkable success with this project, including awards and nominations from festivals, both faith-based and secular, around the world.
After SDW, I was privileged to serve for several other projects as a Director, Unit Production Manager, and even as an actor. I have several projects in various stages of development at this time, and also travel around the country speaking on successful independent filmmaking from a business perspective.
What important lessons did you learn from your first feature, Seven Deadly Words?
I often say that your first feature is a business card, informing others of your capability to see a project through from start to finish. Along the way you will learn many, MANY things about your craft and the indie film process.
First and foremost, I learned that I could not view myself as a filmmaker. I had to view myself as a “Film Marketer”. From even the earliest days of preproduction, decisions I made and opportunities taken had to center around what impact those choices would have on increasing my visibility as a project and eventual viewership / distribution. Too many people just make a movie to express their love of story and art, and only give thought to distribution after the edit. That may be too late.
I also learned so many ways I could save money by working with outside partners such as communities, churches, and small businesses, that would permit me to raise the production values of my film without spending a ton on art direction. I talk a lot about those concepts in my conferences and workshops. You can get big dollar looks on a shoestring budget if you are willing to work with folks in the locations in which you are filming.
What led to your decision to start Culdee Arts Initiative?
When I started in film over a decade ago, I saw a need to support the reintegration and visibility of redemptive/family friendly stories in entertainment. Let’s face it… Realistic and respectful representations of people of faith remains terribly underrepresented in cinema and the redemptive content that is produced has often suffered in story and craft.
When is the next time you will have someone’s undivided attention for 90 minutes? The only place that will happen is in front of the big screen. Why are we squandering it by producing overly preachy, poor quality home movies with bad audio, shallow stories, and one dimensional characters? Worst of all, why are we ignoring the hard learned lessons on distribution and production the secular film industry can provide? It’s time to step up the game for both the art and business of redemptive film production. That’s why I, along with a couple industry friends, have put together the Culdee Arts Initiative.
What is your goal for the program?
The short answer is that our goal is “developing tomorrow’s redemptive storytellers.” Digging deeper, I’d say our mission is “to promote the improvement and integration of redemptive storytelling in film, video and all forms of media.” I believe that the most effective way to encourage redemptive filmmaking is to create and distribute quality feature films using talented cast and crew from the industry, while inviting aspiring filmmakers to come along side, learning as they work in a real-world environment.
We also want to provide unique training opportunities via workshops and conferences, such as the ones Jamie Lee Smith and I will be conducting at the Gloryreelz festival this June. These two sessions are only a small part of a larger conference we can conduct at churches, festivals, schools, or the like on the business of indie film from production to distribution. We aren’t there to teach you art. We are there to help you tailor, craft, and package your art in a way that more and more people will want to see it. You can learn more at our website http://www.CuldeeArts.org
What is the greatest weakness that you see in indie movies right now?
I see two major weaknesses in our system right now. Both are wings of the same bird, flying headlong towards futility and financial ruin.
Working with folks around the world in both secular and redemptive film has lead me to believe we must move past the “Lone Ranger” model. Too many people in the redemptive film community feel they need to be the writer, director, producer, DP, UPM, chief cook, and bottle washer. I don’t know if it is a desire to be cheap, or if it is desire to hold the reigns of ego and control tightly. Either way, you won’t get as good of a product as you would if you work collaboratively with other professionals.
Hollywood has a system of crafts: People learn how to do a job very well and are hired into a team to make this happen. Just as not everyone is an arm or an eye in the body of Christ, not everyone is a Director or a Writer or Boom Op. Yes, the cost of filmmaking will go up, but so will the requirement to have better stories and production values in order to secure the investment needed to afford larger crews. When we finally start to work collaboratively on projects, the quality of redemptive film will increase exponentially.
Secondly, the digital distribution model is killing us right now. Back when you could sell 50,000 dvds, you could make medium budget movies and turn a profit. Now the only films that seem to be doing well statistically are projects that are made for nothing and dumped to digital or are large enough to have a limited theatrical release and associated increases in payments for other windows. We can’t plan our productions using a distribution model that worked five years ago.
As a side note: Do you know the biggest distribution money loss? It’s churches that show movies for free without compensating the producers and church members who pass around dvds so that their friends and families don’t have to buy copies. Folks, in your effort to be a blessing to your family you are stealing from the film makers. Ouch! Yes, I said that out loud.
What advice would you offer to aspiring filmmakers?
First, pray about whether you should be doing this or not. The film industry is tough. IF you really feel led to be part of this ride, find out where your gifting rests. What craft is your calling? (Don’t tell me you can do it all. Ugh. See my previous notes.) Once you know your craft, learn all you can about it. Talk with industry pros. Study books and watch movies to learn more. Attend training workshops and conferences. Work your way up on set. Be known as an “Expert” in your field. Oh, and be willing to work for free or next to nothing on your first couple projects. Treat it as “schooling” towards your career. If you do this right, you will be in demand and will be able to ask for and expect payment. The laborer is worthy of his hire.
Tell us about your budget workshop that you’ll be teaching at GloryReelz.
I call this brief session Big Dreams and Shoestring Budgets. This workshop will offer tips and insights to keep your production costs down and values up. Taking cues from our much large conference, some of the topics to be addressed include:
- Avoid common mistakes that scream “amateur”,
- Determine the “four key purchases” on any film project,
- Start promotion in the script
- Effective budget templates and topsheets,
- Cost saving through in-kind giving,
- And much more !
If you are ready to up your game as an independent filmmaker, this is a great opportunity to pick up some tips and even share a few tricks of your own.
Filmmaking often becomes a family affair. Tell us about your wife’s film related business.
A film army marches on its stomach, and if you can’t pay your crew what they are worth, you should at least feed them well. NO MORE CIRCLES OF DEATH (pizzas lol)! Food should be an important line item in your budget.
My wife Annette is an award winning pastry chef and culinary instructor. She is also an accomplished crafty and caterer with experience preparing healthy, quality meals for production teams at a reasonable cost. Recently, she started her own business called “Artful Frosting”. She provides on-set catering and craft services for regional film productions, and will often hire culinary students to work with her, allowing them to gain positive real-work experience to match their vocational training.
Of additional note, Annette and Artful Frosting also makes royal icing flowers and edible décor and ships them all over the country via her Etsy shop. You can learn more about her work at http://www.facebook.com/artfulfrosting
GloryReelz Christian Film Festival is coming up June 11th in Grand Rapids, Michigan. To learn more and register, visit the Festival Website.