More Advice to Film Makers From a Reviewer – By Duane L. Martin

Several years ago, I wrote an article called Advice From a Reviewer to Independent Filmmakers. In that article, I touched on a variety of issues that I kept seeing pop up in the various films I had been reviewing, as well as other topics, such as how to properly interact with reviewers, lighting, sound, etc…. You can check out the original article here.  Since that time, there have been various other issues that I’ve noticed that weren’t covered in the original piece, so I decided to write up a part II of sorts to fill in the gaps.

First things first, and this has become a real pet peeve of mine…

Trailers

When you make a film trailer, what’s the purpose of it? The purpose is to entice people into wanting to see your film. So how can this goal best be achieved? By following a few simple rules.

First, when you’re making your trailer, don’t just cut together random clips of the film with little to no dialogue. This does absolutely nothing to convey what your film is about to the person viewing the trailer, and in fact, will likely make them not want to see the film at all. The clips you use in your trailer should be cut together in a way as to give the viewer a good sense of what the story of the film is, as well as what they’ll experience when they see the film.

Second, don’t drown out the dialogue in your trailer with overly loud music. Music isn’t as important as what the people in your trailer say, because what they say is important to convey what the film is generally about and to give the people watching the trailer a little feel for the characters involved in your story. This was something I covered in the original article, only in that piece, I was talking about not having your music so loud that it walked all over your dialogue. Well the same goes for trailers. Music, unless it’s recorded live during a scene, is always a choice. What does that mean? It means that you, as the person editing your trailer (or your film), have complete control over how heavily that music is mixed in with the other sound. Even the most inexperienced editor should be able to listen to a mix and tell if the music is mixed in so heavily that it’s walking on the dialogue and the other sounds in the scene. All it takes is a pair of ears to hear it, and it’s incredibly simple to lower the level of the music to an appropriate level.

Third, make your trailer an appropriate length. I’ve seen trailers that run anywhere from thirty seconds to two and a half minutes or more. An appropriate length trailer should be between a minute and a minute and a half. Any more and you’re not only giving away too much, but you’re also risking turning off the viewer. They may become bored with it because it’s too long, and skip on to the next thing. Keeping it within the minute to minute and a half time frame not only keeps it more concise, but will keep the viewer interested and make them want more (if they like what they see). Alternatively, if the trailer is too short, like say thirty seconds or so, you run the risk of losing the viewer because you’re not giving them enough to make them want more. If they can’t get a good feel for what your film is, then once again you’ve lost them.

In summary: Keep your trailers an appropriate length, edit them in a concise manner with shots that allow the viewer to get a good feel for not only the story, but the characters as well, and don’t drown everything out with overly loud music.

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Fundraising

With more and more film makers turning to sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo for production funding, I thought I should discuss this ever growing aspect of the process.

When you’re making a budget for your film, be realistic about your goals. If you ask for too much, it may put people off. If you ask for a reasonable amount, people will feel like they’re contributing more to the production by sending you five or ten bucks. Setting your donation levels too high in an economy where people are struggling to pay their bills where they’ll really get very little in return for their donation is just asking for failure. Keep it reasonable, and you’ll raise your chances for success significantly.

Next, offer reasonable rewards for certain levels of donations. I’ve seen various campaigns offer an associate producer credit for certain levels of donation. It’s not only inappropriate, but also disrespectful in my opinion, as it waters down both the meaning and the importance of the work that real associate producers do. Offering a special thank you in the credits is a far more appropriate way of thanking the people who donate to your film.

Avoid Kickstarter. Why do I say that? It’s not because there’s anything inherently wrong with Kickstarter. In fact, there’s a certain amount of legitimacy that having a campaign on Kickstarter lends to your fundraising efforts. However, if you don’t reach your fundraising goals, you get nothing. Then what are you left with? A failed campaign and no budget. IndieGoGo (and some other similar sites as well), will pay you what you’ve gained by the end of the campaign. IndieGoGo is also a legit site that will, like Kickstarter, lend credibility to your campaign. The best part is, even if you don’t meet your goals, you’ll still get the donations you’ve received. That means that even though you’ll have less budget to work with, you can still try to work within the confines of what you have in order to get your film made, or at least to get started on the production while you seek out more funds from other sources.

Now let’s talk about some other potential sources of funding…

Holding fundraisers is a great way to raise money for your film. You can put together some really run fundraisers that people will get a lot of enjoyment out of, while at the same time, getting you some much needed money for your production. For example, contact some local bands and tell them about your film project, and maybe even get them involved with doing some of the music for your film. Many local bands would be happy to do songs for your film for nothing more than a credit. If you can find a band that you like that wants to get involved, ask them if they’d be willing to play a fundraising gig for you for free, and then make arrangements with a local venue, typically a bar or club, to hold your fundraiser there. Everyone wins in a situation like this. The band gets exposure, the bar gets increased business, and you get the covers from the door, and maybe even a small cut from the bar if the owner’s willing to do it. There are many creative fundraising activities open to you if you just use your imagination and give people something they want, or something that will entertain them in exchange for their hard earned money. People may hesitate to make a straight up donation, but give them something they’ll enjoy in return, and they’ll be far more willing to shell out the cash.

Something else you can try is to get local businesses to sponsor your film in exchange for advertising on the film’s website and in the credits, or you can even offer them product or ad placement within the film itself. Again, this costs you literally nothing, but you’re giving them something of value to them, while getting something you need in return.

Lastly, be prepared to sell yourself. If you’re going to ask for money from people, you need to be able to show them what you’re capable of. How do you do this? Well, there are a few ways, but the most important thing you can do is to show them that you know what you’re doing. To that end, I would suggest either having previous works to show them that you’re particularly proud of, or if you want to stay focused on the current project, shoot a test scene from your script and be able to present a fully edited scene including music, proper sound, effects, and whatever else is supposed to be there to your prospective donators or investors . If they see you have the ability to produce something great, they’ll be able to donate to your project with some level of confidence that you’ll be able to pull it together. No one wants to invest in a hack, or to throw money at something that will never be completed because the film maker lacks the ambition or ability to do so. Being able to show them a fully edited and complete scene, or previous works that you’ve done will give them the confidence that they’re backing someone who’s not only competent, but dedicated to what they want to achieve.

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Online vs. Physical Screeners

I’ve received a lot of requests in the last couple of years to review online screeners. While we do review them, and it’s tempting for film makers to go that route for cost reasons, I would highly discourage this practice when looking to have your film reviewed, for two very specific reasons. First, when you send a reviewer an e-mail with the link to your film, two things can happen. First, the e-mail may either get lost in the shuffle of all the other e-mails we get and we’ll forget to do the review, or the mail may get shuffled off into a spam folder or blocked entirely by a spam filter and go unseen. Second, reviewers are human. We’re busy folks with busy lives and a lot to do, just like everyone else. When we have a physical screener in front of us, we know that we have to watch and review it. When we have a link in an e-mail that’s mixed in with all our other e-mails, there’s a much higher probability that we’ll forget to review your film in the shuffle of everything else we have to do.

Something else about online screeners, is that we, as reviewers, have no way of knowing what you intend to do with the film. Are you sending it out to festivals? Are you looking for distribution? Who’s going to get to see this film? If you have a production copy to send us, that tells us you’re planning on selling the film, either through self distribution, or maybe even starting with self distributing while you look for an actual distribution deal. If your film is going to sit password protected on Vimeo forever and maybe only see the light of day at a couple of festivals, then how many people are actually going to ever get to see it? It may sound selfish, but our time is valuable, and we have a lot of requests for reviews coming in all the time. Some months I really stuggle with getting everything assigned out and covered that comes in. That means that when push comes to shove, we need to focus on the films that we know will be out there and available for people to see. If it’s not going to be out there and available, then we’re wasting our time reviewing it, and the readers are wasting their time reading a review for something they’ll never get the chance to check out.

Having your screener online is absolutely fine and we’re happy to review it, but you need to be aware of the issues involved with going that route, and before you ask for a review, you need to really know what your plans are for your film. Even if it never gets distribution and only goes to a few festivals, at some point you really need to make it available for general viewing, or find some way to sell people inexpensive digital copies…or at least do something to get it out there for public consumption, even if it’s for free. Hell, you could even use it, as mentioned above, as an example to raise funds for your next film. The point is, if we’re going to review it, we want to know that at some point in the relatively near future, people will be able to see it in one form or another.

On the flip side of that, sometimes we get requests to review films that are thrown on YouTube for everyone to see for free. It’s the opposite situation but a similar problem. What are you going to do with the film? I’m not sure the festivals will accept it if it’s on YouTube and openly available, and I’m not too sure distributors would be wanting to even discuss a deal with you either in that situation.

I can’t emphasize strongly enough how important it is to produce physical copies of your film, not only for reviewers, but also to sell to the general public. I know you can’t really sell films while they’re making the festival rounds, but while your film is doing the festival run, you can work on producing those physical copies to sell, or at the very least, work on getting distribution of some sort so you can make your film available for purchase. If you need help finding a production house that will do a small run for you at a reasonable price, hit the film maker forums and ask around. A lot of film makers have had production runs done on their films, and I’m sure they’ll be happy to share their experiences with you.

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Subtitles

Growing up, I never used subtitles when I watched a film. In fact, I found them rather annoying. When I got married however, because of my wife’s slight hearing impairment, she finds it way easier to get the most out of the things she watches when subtitles are turned on. To that end, we now have subtitles on all the time on both television and the films that we watch. This, plus the fact that we watch a large number of foreign films with subtitles, means that not only did I get used to them, but they’ve become a much desired commodity. Why? Because honestly, I never realized how many of the little subtleties of the dialogue and background sounds I was missing until I started watching everything with subtitles. For those with slight to profound impairments to their hearing, subtitles are essential to helping them get the most out of the films and television shows they watch. Put yourself in their position. You’re watching a film, and only getting maybe 80% of what’s being said, while missing the quieter or more background bits. How much would you take away from the experience? How much enjoyment would you get out of it? It would be limited at best. I know adding subtitles can be a painstaking process, but it’s also something you can do to add value to your film and will help people get more out of it. I hear perfectly fine, but I still miss certain subtleties in films that I can pick up on through the use of subtitles, thereby allowing me to get more from the experience. This is something that’s really important to me personally, and I would really like to encourage the film makers and distributors out there to be better about including subtitles on their releases.

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Communication

Recently, I was sent a review request for a film. I actually received four or five e-mails requesting a review for the film. Then when I assigned the film out for review, I received several more e-mails asking how the review was coming along, when it would be posted, how often the magazine comes out, etc….

The lesson here is, don’t be a pest. Send in a review request in one e-mail. Wait for a response. If you don’t receive a response, try once more, as your request may have gone into a spam folder, been blocked by a spam filter, not received for technical reasons, or accidentally marked read and got lost in the shuffle. Once your film is accepted for review, wait for notification that it’s been reviewed, or check back to the site once in a while to see if the review has been posted. If it’s not posted in a reasonable time frame, then it’s ok to send an inquiry about it. It’s also perfectly acceptible to request an estimated time for when the review will be posted. Here on Rogue Cinema, we post a new issue at the beginning of each month, at which time all the content we produced in the previous month is posted. If we receive your screeners before the end of the month with enough time left to allow us to get the review done for the new issue, we do our best to get it done quickly, so you don’t have to wait an extra month for the review to appear. Other sites post reviews in a constant stream as they come in. With us, you know it’ll either be in the next issue or if it’s not received in time, the one following. For sites that post in a stream format rather than an issue format, you never know when it might appear, so in those cases especially, it’s perfectly fine to ask for an estimated time frame.

Also, if your film is rejected for review and you’re given a reason for the rejection, just accept it and try another site. Recently I was asked for a review of a film that was three hours long. I rejected it because of the running time, and because I knew it was going to be the type of a film where nothing was edited out and it was going to be this overly long, horrific thing that was going to get a bad review anyway, and I didn’t want to eat up three hours of one of my reviewer’s time reviewing that when they could use that same amount of time to review two normal length features. Unless your film is Lord of the Rings, it likely has no business being three hours long. Still, this particular film maker persisted, and after a huge hassle with tons of issues and e-mails going back and forth, the reviewer finally managed to download a digital copy of the film. In the end, the film ended up being exactly what I figured it would be, and got a very bad review.

As the editor of this magazine, I rarely reject films, because a huge part of what we do is to help out the indie folks out there who are trying to get the word out about their films. When I do happen to reject one, it’s for a very good reason. Whether it’s content related or for excessive length or for incredibly poor production quality, there’s always a good reason for the rejection. Hassling us to accept your film for review anyway after its been rejected may occasionally work and get you a review, but my guess is, the review you get won’t be a good one. Not because of any animosity you’ll generate by being pushy about it, but because of the fact that if there was a good enough reason for me to reject it, then it’s likely the type of film that is going to get a bad review regardless, typically based on the reasons I rejected it for in the first place. This is what you’ll probably find with most review sources, so it’s better to just take the rejection graciously and move on when you receive one. There may be other sites out there that would be more receptive to your work or be willing to accept anything, regardless of content, length or quality, so it’s better to focus your efforts on those sites, as you’ll have a much better chance of getting reviewed.

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Don’t Over Promote

Social media is an awesome thing, and it’s a fabulous way to get people involved and excited about your film. It’s also a great promotional tool, as long as it’s not abused. What do I mean by abused? Well…

Being who I am and holding the position I do, I’ve had a number of film makers, actors and actresses add me as friends on Facebook over the years. I’m extremely happy to connect with people, as long as that’s why they want to friend me. There have been several instances however where people will friend me, and then every single post I see from them is to either promote themselves, or to promote the films or other things they’ve been involved with. This is a good example of what not to do, because at best I’ll simply eliminate you from my news feed, as I, like most people, will quickly grow tired of the endless self promotion.  At worst I’ll remove you from my friends list all together. As I said, I’m extremely happy to connect with people, and I’m a really friendly guy, but if you’re only purpose in adding me, or anyone else for that matter, is to spam them with promotional posts and event invites, then all you’re going to do is to turn a whole lot of people off and make them utterly sick of hearing about anything you’re involved with, which is exactly the opposite effect of what you really want to be achieving when you use social media.

Here’s how to do it right…

Make a Facebook page for your film or whatever project it is you want to promote, and invite people to "Like" it. Also, promote that page on your film or project’s website and in press releases so you can get more people to check out the page, and hopefully click the "Like" button. By liking your page, people are choosing of their own free will to get status updates from you regarding whatever your page happens to be for. This allows them to make the choice, rather than having your impersonal updates imposed on them from your personal account when they’re really not interested in seeing it.

On your personal account, add the various people you want to connect to or be friends with on a personal level, keeping most of what you post on there just normal, personal posts rather than anything promotional. This is a good way to build friendships and to get people interested in the things you’re working on so that they actually want to hear about it and get involved.

If you’ve made the mistake of over promoting yourself or your project in the past and have turned people off, don’t feel bad. Even Hollywood does it. I still remember the gross over promotion they did for the film Drillbit Taylor. I was so sick of hearing about that film that I wanted to track down and burn every copy I could get my hands on, and I sure as hell never wanted to see it.

Make people sick of hearing about something, and you’ve lost them, probably forever. Limit your updates to things that are important, and you’ll build and keep a fan base that will stick with you and remain interested in what you have going on.

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Paying for Reviews

It has come to my attention recently that there are at least a couple of sites out there charging for reviews. I know one film maker who actually went ahead and tried it. He paid them for a review, and then a few months after, he had to contact them to find out where the review was. They finally posted it after that, but when they did, it was a very poorly written review that copied and pasted material from his own website that he himself had written, and barely had anything resembling an actual review of the film.

Paying for reviews is wrong on many levels. It corrupts the integrity of the reviewer, film maker relationship, it corrupts the integrity of the site as a whole, and it’s simply a repugnant practice that should be a huge red flag to both film makers looking to have their films reviewed, and the general public who want to read reviews about films they may potentially be interested in seeing. Sites like this should be avoided entirely and sent a message that this practice is unacceptable and unprofessional. I don’t care how they try to justify it, it’s just flat out wrong.

I have stated publicly and I’ll state it here once again that Rogue Cinema has never, and will never charge for reviews. We make no money on this site, and I personally lose money every month because I’m the one that hosts it and pays for the domain and what not. We have an all volunteer staff, and the only compensation we get for what we do are the screeners that we review and get to add to our collection. We do this because we enjoy what we do, and we really like being a part of the indie community and helping out the film makers out there who are trying to get the word out about their films. If we made money doing this, that would be awesome. Sadly however, we don’t, but I will tell you this. There is absolutely no way in hell we would ever try to make money off the backs of the independent film makers out there who are already on very limited budgets. That’s just wrong, and it’s a practice I find personally abhorrent. If a site asks you for money to review your film, just tell them no and move on to other, better sites that won’t.

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As with the first article, my intention here is to give the film makers out there some advice from a reviewer’s point of view. If you’ve gotten this far, then congratulations. I know this is a really long article and I do tend to ramble on and on sometimes when I write, but hopefully it wasn’t too tedious to get through. My hope is that it will give some of you out there some things to think about that maybe you hadn’t considered before, and that will help you as you move forward with your career as a film maker. Again, this article should be considered a companion piece to the first article.  If you found this article useful, I would encourage you to check out my original article as well.