By Saskia Wilson-Brown, January 19th, 2011

This is a series of posts delving into the gory details of what it takes to produce an independent film. Covering the entire process — from development to fundraising, production, distribution, online strategies and beyond — they will be written in real time, from first hand experience, as I go through the process of producing a feature-length documentary.

WTF IS A FILM PACKAGE, AND HOW DO I MAKE ONE?

A few weeks ago I posted about some legal issues and paperwork that you needed to get going for your production. That’s all well and good, but there’s no use in having all your legal stuff worked out if you don’t have a story, and — of course — a really good film package.

What follows is all information I’ve gleaned from various sources- including the internet, several lawyers, and my colleagues and friends in the industry. Most important is, however, to do your homework. There are a million ways to skin a cat, what works for me may not work for you and etc.

First and foremost, it’s important to clarify to yourself what the purpose of your film package is. Usually this purpose is quite simple: To sell the film to investors during the development and fundraising process.

For me, the package also has a secondary purpose: To serve as the repository for a topline production strategy- a strategy I will refer to over and over as the production intensifies. Call it psychological support.

Since the document then functions as a strategy AND as a sales document, writing it becomes quite the art. It needs to be snappy yet thorough, exciting yet substantial, sexy yet functional. Mainly it needs to be able to appeal to a broad variety of personalities and levels of professionalism. Big investors – if you can persuade them to look at your little project in the first place – will be looking for researched information and thought-out storylines combined with something with SOME level of marketability, and will quickly sniff bullshit if you haven’t done your due diligence. Conversely, if you are going a DIY route, your micro-funders on Kickstarter or IndieGoGo will most likely be more into the vision and the context rather than the research and marketing- the art and originality of it, as it were.

Your package will seed every fundraising effort you make, and given the diverse personalities and interests it will be sent to, it may be tempting to produce different packages for different people. I’ve found, however, that it’s best to make one master document, and just pick and choose what information you want to send out – but always from the same source.

One more word of advice: I once heard the gore horror film director Herschell Gordon Lewis say that – in fundraising and marketing – you sell what people want to see, but you make what you want them to see. In other words, compromise a bit and throw in a few nods to the larger world (and even to their questionable taste), but never forget your core vision. That’s what the film will be about, in the end, no matter how you spin it in your package.

Without further ado, here are the most important elements to include:

Some sort of snappy image: This can be something that inspired the film, or, better yet, preliminary key art. This will be the cover of your package, so it needs to be eye-catching. If you don’t have key art yet, use a nice image but do yourself a favor and ask a designer friend to quickly look the first page over- and then take their advice. Film is a visual medium, and your package should look good.

**On that note: Be sure to put a little attention into your formatting and typefaces. Keep it classic, simple, and for the love of god use a typeface that people want to look at for 40 pages.

Title: ‘But my title will change’, you say. Well, yes, it will, but it’s very important to give the people you are reaching out to some way to refer to the project, even if it’s something clunky ‘Untitled Carina Nebula Documentary’.

Logline: Something lively and terse that manages to define your film in a nutshell, for quick reference. There is conflicting information on the length of the logline, but I tend to keep it at about a sentence (or two). Most importantly, it should somehow manage to speak to the premise, as well as the main plot point of your film. Think of how you would explain the project if you were yelling out your window to that distribution exec from Paramount that is stuck at the same red light as you.

For inspiration: Look at http://www.writersstore.com/writing-loglines-that-sell for examples, or try your hand at the random logline generator (which produces really shitty loglines, but is sort of fun nonetheless).

Synopsis (250 word version, 500 word version): Most grant applications will request a synopsis between 250 and 500 words. To be safe, and although people disagree with this, I have found that it’s a good idea to write both a short and a long synopsis.

The short should cover the main plot points, introduce the primary characters, and get to the heart of the story points for your film- including the ending. If you’re working within a three act structure, your synopsis should reflect the main points of each act, giving about a paragraph per act.

The long version can be peppered with a little more context giving stuff- the things that make your project beautiful or unique or different, from a story point of view. The long one is the one you should aim to use the most.

Here are some more links to information written by some better informed people on the topic: ‘How to Write a Synopsis‘ by Nathan Bransford; A breakdown of a synopsis by Rachel Shirley; and a page on the WGA site that lists a series of links for screenwriters.

Project Background (400 words):  Give a little history of how this project came about. Your history with the subject, for instance, or the genesis of the formation of the core team on the project. This section can serve to elucidate the passion of the filmmakers, and sell the reader on the commitment you have shown to the project thus far.

Treatment (3 pages): This is the scene-by-scene breakdown of your film, and is almost impossible to do to satisfaction with a documentary, given how many unknowns there are. Nonetheless, you should have a good idea of how your film would look in a perfect world, and this treatment can reflect that blue-sky vision. It’s also an excellent exercise in trying to firm up the structure of your story, and ideally would be a scene-by-scene breakdown of the film in its entirety.

This is also the place where you can include a paragraph (or two) speaking to the style you intend to shoot in. A quick-cut Guy Ritchie approach? Or a long and lingering meditation? Verite? Black and white, or saturated colors? This is a good opportunity to get the reader’s visual imagination flowing. Here’s a link to a very informed article by Marilyn Horowitz on the topic.

Transmedia (as long as needed, if needed): How deep you want to get into shoring up a transmedia strategy for your film? And what would be this strategy’s primary purpose? Is your transmedia campaign designed to complement and further the storyline? Or is it just a fancy euphemism for creative marketing (in which case just put a little ‘transmedia’ section in your marketing segment and call it a day)? What sort of other media are you capable of using?

These are relevant questions, and this segment will be huge, tiny, or not exist at all depending on what you want to do with this. Just remember: A t-shirt line or a marketing-heavy comic book does not a (good) transmedia campaign make. Look at the work of Lance Weiler, the writings of Mark Harris on Workbook Project, Zenith the film, or The Cosmonaut project for inspiration.

Target Audience (250 words): Research your target audience, and be as specific as possible. Don’t write things like “This is a film that will appeal to women.” What kind of women? Urban, white, latte-drinking, art museum membership-holding social butterflies? Rural Native American truck-driving family-loving social workers? Age, location, interests, professional levels, etc. all play a part in potential audiences. Truth? Chances are that the people who will be interested in your film are the people most like you, so start there. Define who you are, exactly, and expand outwards.

In the US, I like to refer to the PRIZM Segmentation system, that divides people into insanely accurate classification segments like ‘Bohemian Mix’, ‘Money and Brains, and ‘Young Digerati’ It’s not as available online as it once was, but you can get a taste of their subcategories by typing in your zip code at this website, and looking at the types of people in your immediate neighborhood. In the UK the ACORN system is widely used to define social groups.

Topline Distribution Strategy (2 to 3 pages): Just what it sounds like. People who invest in your film will want to guarantee one of three things: that it’ll get made (your micro-funders or your family), that it’ll make money (an investor who expects a return), or that it’ll get seen by as many people as possible (a corporate sponsor whose logo is plastered across your credits).

Thus, you need a strategy for distribution, beyond ‘get into Sundance and sell film for five million bucks’, that at least sets a realistic plan for how to attempt to meet all three of these goals. Also, be sure to include DIY strategies so that you have a back-up plan that you can implement on your own with a lot of elbow grease. Refer to any of the articles on workbookproject.com for reference.

Marketing Strategy (2 to 3 pages): As above. How do you plan to present and sell your film? How do you plan to harness audiences? The marketing strategy will, perforce, tie into the distribution plan. For instance, if you are going a DIY route, marketing must start early and be geared towards engagement and a sense of investment. However, if you are doing television distribution (and have the pre-sales to guarantee it), the marketing will be mostly covered by the TV execs who bought your film, and can be kept to a minimum (but, in my opinion, never ignored completely).

In my experience, there are so many excellent films out there, that it’s increasingly hard to get people’s attention. The more you do by way of engaging your potential audience the better off you are (short of bombarding your long-sufferingTwitter followers with constant updates on a project that is not even close to completion). This is an art, it needs to be effective without being heavy handed, and it needs, crucially, to reach beyond your immediate social circles. So – again – do your research, and branch outwards: Don’t market your project to other indie filmmakers. They’ll be there to support you, but there aren’t enough of us to sustain a deeper success.

Fundraising Strategy, with deadlines (2 pages): Yikes, the belly of the beast, or the crux of the problem of filmmaking. This strategy will, of course, change all the time. Start this section off with your goal and deadlines in one sentence: “Goal: Raise $XXX,XXX.XX over the course of the next XX months, broken down into X deadlines.” Then, simply write out your deadlines, how much you wish to have raised by the relevant dates, and how you plan to raise it. Simple. Ha.

Be sure to include both DIY and other fundraising methods (such as regional pre-sales, government subsidies, corporate sponsorship, private investors and whatever else you can attain). I’ll be writing a big post on this next month, so will leave it at that, but in the meantime, read this very informative article by Edward Jay Epstein on Hope For Film.

Projected Production Timetable (1 page): The four sections of a production should be represented here: Development, Pre-production, Production, Post-Production. If you are doing a concerted transmedia phase to your project, add that in as a fifth phase of production, probably between development and pre-production. Write down the deadlines for each phase, and the periods you are allotting to each phase of production, as well as what you will accomplish in each phase.

Key Personnel: No more than a 250 word bio for each person, including the director (if one is assigned to the project already), the producer(s), the art director/production designer, the cinematographer, and the bios of any key subjects or actors who have already committed to the film. Basically, the core creative and business team.

Advisor Bios: Keep this short, if you include it at all, but if you have made one film or less, definitely consider having a team of advisors. I try to build a team of advisors with each project- because I am young and ‘emerging’ (to put it kindly) and I know that I don’t know everything and need help. There’s no shame in it, and anyone looking to support your project will be happy to know that you are supported by the benefit and learning of more experienced people.

Budget Summary (1 page): A topline budget summary – broken down into categories. Read Christine Vachon’s excellent book ‘Shooting to Kill’ for a fantastically detailed breakdown of a budget.

Legalese (more pages than you will ever care to read): Your attorney will want to get a lot of info in your package—mostly surrounding disclaimers and not guaranteeing anything and etc. This is something you must include if you are trying to be serious about raising a lot of cash, and it’s in your best interest to protect yourself and qualify the expectations.

OK, that’s it. Easy right? Bear in mind that different entities require different elements when considering potentially funding your film. But if you have all the above written out, you should be pretty much covered with whatever you try for.

As a final aside: Regarding the written part of the film. If you have developed the film, written the treatment, the script or even just the synopsis… I strongly encourage you to register it either with the WGA (costs $20 for non-members) or the Copyright office (costs $35).

And finally, here’s a link to another online article about writing a film package, that I found to be a pretty good read. Good luck!

Next post: Fundraising strategies for the money-illiterate (who hate sales).

Read my last 2 posts in this series: ‘DEFINING ROLES’ and GETTING YOUR DUCKS IN A ROW PART 1: LEGAL AND PAPERWORK’

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Posted in education production journal

Saskia Wilson-Brown has a background in fine art, curation, film festivals, TV and production design. She works as a producer, strategist and advocate; supporting initiatives such as DIY Days and Slamdance Film Festival (among others) while running a guerilla screening series called Cinema Speakeasy. She is currently in production on her first feature doc.

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COMMENTS

  • fidel

    thanks you so much, your stuff has helped me a lot. Your work is greatly appreciated.

  • Sander Aben

    Thank you very much for this Saskia. Appreciate your help.

  • Eric

    Thank you so much for this. Even though I'm the first commenter, I can't imagine I'm the first person to appreciate the hard work and thoughtfulness that you put into this. Thank you again!

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