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How to create your own work (as an actor)

Last month I was on a panel about Off Book with the co-star, Mindy Fay Parks, at the Chicago Acting in Film Meetup (CAFM) to talk about Off Book.

The main thrust of the conversation was about actors producing their own work. The conventional wisdom right now is that if actors aren’t getting the kind of work that they want to be getting, they should produce make a web series or a short film to highlight themselves.

This is a great idea.

As an actor, I was always hoping that someone else would see potential in me, cast me, etc. There’s a lot more responsibility as a writer/director/producer, but at least you’re in the driver’s seat. You don’t have to wait for other people to choose you, you can choose yourself.

Caveats, or why I think this advice should be qualified with additional, more nuanced advice

“Create your own work!” usually implies that actors should go out and start writing scripts, which I think should be qualified a bit. Sometimes actors sit down and write something great (like Eric & Mindy with Off Book), but most actors are not (good) writers.

I don’t mean that they lack the ability to become good writers, I mean that they have spent many years honing their craft as actors and much less time or no time at all honing their craft as writers.1

I think it’s unreasonable to expect all great actors to also be great writers. I mean, they’re completely different skills. Some people can do both but most people do one better than the other. I think it’s ridiculous to allow your acting potential to be limited by your writing talent and skill. Is Meryl Streep a great writer? I don’t know and it shouldn’t matter.

What’s your point?

My point is that if you’re an actor and you want to produce your own work, you don’t have to write it. If you think like a producer, you’ll see that there are a lot of options for bringing together a project that will highlight your talents:

  1. Write a script yourself or with a partner.
  2. Find a short play that you love and option the rights to it or buy it outright and adapt it to the screen.
  3. Find a writer to write a script for you.
  4. Acquire rights to an existing screenplay.
  5. Find a writer/director and offer to produce their next film if they cast you in it.
  6. Probably other options that I haven’t thought of.

I already covered #1 so I’ll go through the other options. I’m assuming that we’re talking about a short film here, but this also applies to features or web series.

Acquiring rights to a short play

If I were going this route, I would go to all of the short play festivals and readings in my city until I found one that I really loved and had a role that fit me. Then I would approach the writer and ask if they’ve ever thought about adapting it for the screen (with a lead role for myself).

In exchange, I would produce it (more on producing below). Most unknown playwrights would be interested in this proposition. Even somewhat well-known playwrights would be interested in this if they haven’t done a lot of screen work.

You could also inquire at local playwright incubators in your city, or even online, and ask to read the scripts of playwrights. In Chicago, I would look at Chicago Dramatists as a starting place.

Finding a writer

Similar to the option above, I would go to a lot of stage shows with original work and find a writer whose work I loved. The only difference is that I would approach them about writing something original for me, instead of adapting an existing property.

In exchange, I would offer to produce the film.

Acquire the rights to an existing screenplay

In this case, you’re finding a script somewhere from a screenwriter and either paying them for the script or offering to collaborate with them. I would go to local screenwriting meetups or find local films that had been written by someone other than the director. I have a producer friend who found a script this way on Reddit.

A tangent about actors interacting with directors in public

Before I get to item #5, I’m about to go on a tangent about actors interacting with directors. Skip it if you want.

The way actors (often) try to ‘network’ with directors is by meeting them at meetups and trying to cozy up to them in hopes of getting cast in something. There’s nothing inherently bad about this, although it can make directors uncomfortable if you’re too pushy about it. And sometimes it works — if I meet an actor while I’m in the middle of casting and they’re in the range of what I’m looking for, I will invite them to audition.

Personally, I love meeting actors and will check out their work and jot their name down after meeting them if I think they might be a good fit for a future project.

So while I wouldn’t discourage actors from being friendly with directors, I would say it’s much better to: a) invite them to your shows and comp them so they can see, for free, your talent, or b) become friends with them first in an organic way by inviting them to parties or whatever on a friend level without any hint of expectations or desperation, or c) buy them coffee and ask for their advice because everyone loves to be asked for their advice and sometimes when they go too long without being asked for their advice, they do things like write really long blog posts about it, but I digress.

So why is the normal approach not very good?

First of all, if I meet an actor, I have no idea if they’re any good. That’s why I recommend inviting them to see a show you’re in.

Second, if you’re too aggressive, it feels fake.

And third — you want to make a film RIGHT NOW, not in a year when maybe the director will remember you when he or she is working on their next project. Create your future, etc.

OK, tangent over.

Approaching a writer/director

Here’s what I would do. I would go online and find any local film writer/directors and watch their films. If I couldn’t find their films online, I would try to email or tweet them and ask them where I can find it online. I would go to all the film screenings and festivals and meet directors there.

Then, instead of saying “hi! I’m an actor!” and handing them a headshot or a business card or refrigerator magnet with my face on it, I would tell them that I really enjoyed their film and ask them for their card so I can check out their other work online.

And I would ask all my actor friends to tell me about indie directors that they liked working with or who are doing great stuff.

Then, when I found someone that I was interested in working with, I would approach them with a real proposition. I would say something like “I’m an actor and producer and I’m looking for a collaborator for my next project. I really liked [movie that they made] and I think we have a similar sensibility. To be more specific, I don’t have a script in place yet, but I would be interesting in developing a project with you (I would produce and raise the money). Would you be interested in getting coffee to see if we would be a good match?”

This is so much better than handing out your headshots because you’re coming from a place of agency. You’re not begging them to cast you in something, you’re approaching them as a collaborator who will, most importantly, bring something very valuable to the table. This also works when you already have a script and you need to hire a director to realize it.

What value are you bringing to the table? You’re going to produce.

Producing

I recently read a post by the marketing teacher/blogger Seth Godin, called The bingo method:

You might need help to turn an idea into a project.

Most of the time, though, project developers walk up to those that might help and say, “I have a glimmer of an idea, will you help me?”

The challenge: It’s too challenging. Open-ended. To offer to help means to take on too much. And of course people are hesitant to sign on for an unlimited obligation to help with something that’s important to you, not to them.

If we apply Seth’s metaphor to filmmaking, there are four basic squares on the bingo card that need to be filled in:

  • A script
  • Money
  • Personnel
  • Locations

In reality, there might be 200 squares to be filled in, but these are the four key ones.

If you’re just an actor, then you’ve got a lot of competition. There are a lot of actors in any big city. And if you’re reading this, then you’re probably not at a point in your career where you’ve distinguished yourself enough to be in high demand. Or you’re in high demand but not for the kind of roles you want to play, however financially rewarding a national Budweiser spot or guest victim on Chicago PD might be.

So, if you were to approach me as just an actor and say “hey, I’m a good actor, can I be in your next film?” the chances are that I’m not going to put all of my current projects aside to produce, raise money, and write a script that will make you look great. I’m going to keep working on my own stuff.

However, the conversation changes if you bring more than yourself to the table. Because the hardest things about indie filmmaking are a) raising money and b) producing.

By producing, I mean handing the hiring of personnel, scouting locations, filing SAG paperwork, preparing releases, arranging for meal delivery, etc.

I fucking hate doing that work.

I do it for my own projects because the pain of working 8 hours at my day job and then coming home to fill out SAG paperwork and correspond with agents and location owners and insurance brokers and rental houses and create schedules and update spreadsheets with too many rows for 5 hours is less than the pain of not making films.

It’s not a labor of love, it’s a pain in the ass that is necessary to get to rehearsal and set and do the creative stuff that I love.

So. If you approached me (or another writer/director) with either the willingness to produce or with money (or the necessary work to raise money via crowdfunding), then I would really really want to talk to you and hear what you have to say.

In the case of Off Book, I was very busy at the time with The Deadline and was up front with Mindy and Eric. I told them that I wouldn’t have time to be a producer on the project or to help raise money and they were OK with that. They also had a script in place. The script needed some rewriting but the concept was great and most of the structure was in place. We just had to polish it a bit and work on the ending. While I did take a short break from my existing projects, I didn’t have to put them on hold for a whole year.

And if any one of the bingo squares is particularly strong, then you need fewer squares or the other squares can be weaker. For example, if you said “I have $50k to shoot a feature film starring myself, but I have no script” then I would say “DON’T WORRY, I WILL WRITE ONE.”

And I know you probably don’t have $50k lying around but you might have $2k lying around or a credit card with a $3k limit or a lot of friends and family that would donate to a crowdfunding campaign. Raising money for a web series or short film isn’t easy but I have plenty of friends that have raised $5k via crowdfunding without being famous or having huge networks or going viral. It’s a lot of work but it’s in the realm of possibility.2

And you don’t have to do all the producing on your own. You can find someone to help you. The important part is that you’re going to lead the project to completion, whether by doing to work yourself or finding friends or experienced people to help you. You are the project manager. You are the person who wakes up every morning with the job of making sure that the film gets made.

In my opinion, raising money and producing are a lot easier than writing a great script. In Chicago, you can take a class on producing that will teach you all the basics. And you can learn a lot by bringing someone with experience onto the project as an AD or an associate producer or just and adviser.

I realize that I haven’t said anything about how to actually produce a film, so I’m going to write another blog post soon that gets into the nuts and bolts of that process.

I hope this helps. If you want to hear from me when the aforementioned films get released, you can subscribe to my newsletter.

 


  1. This tends to be less the case with actors that come from the sketch and improv world because, at least in Chicago, almost all the comedy people also write and produce their own sketch shows. 

  2. Check out Seed&Spark’s free Crowdfunding for Independence tutorials for guidance. 

How to choose which movies to watch

Movie-picking advice from one of my favorite blogs, Marginal Revolution:

1. If the movie was shot for the big screen, you must see it on the big screen. Otherwise your response is not to be trusted.

2. Try not to discriminate by genre or topic, for instance “I don’t like war movies,” “I don’t like romantic comedies,” and so on. You’ll miss out on the very best of that genre or topic this way, and those are very likely very good indeed. (NB: In your spare time, you can debate whether there is a horror movies exception to the principle.)

3. In my view, the bad Oscar picks were evident right away. A five year wait will only elevate some other set of mediocre movies instead. Movie awards are designed to generate publicity for the industry, not to reward merit. Ignore them.

4. I use movie criticism in the following way: I read just enough to decide if I want to see the movie, and then no more. I also try to forget what I have read. But before a second viewing of a film, I try to read as much as possible about it.

5. On net, I find the best reviews are in Variety magazine, as they are written for movie professionals. And the market for reviews is largely efficient. That is, if you read six smart critics on a movie — usually just two or three in fact — you will have a good idea of the quality of the movie. But you must put aside movies that are politically correct or culturally iconic, as they tend to be overrated. Brokeback Mountain and The Graduate will make plenty of “best of” lists, and they are both interesting and extremely important for both cinematic and cultural reasons. Still, I would not say either is a great movie, though they have some wonderful scenes and themes.

6. Hardly anyone watches enough foreign movies, that means you too. Or you might not watch enough outside your favored cinematic area, such as French, Bollywood, etc. There is a switching cost due to different cinematic “languages,” but most of your additional rewards at the margin probably lie in this direction. Furthermore, the very best foreign movies are so excellent it is easy to find out which they are.

7. I still think Pulp Fiction and The Big Lebowski, while good, are overrated. Don’t always assume your second reaction is the correct one. In addition, a lot of movies are made to be seen only once, so don’t hold that against them. For instance, I am not sure I need to see the opening sequence of Private Ryan again, but I am very glad I saw it once. It made seeing the whole movie worthwhile, but since most of the rest is ordinary, albeit serviceable, seeing it again would be excruciating.

8. It is a mistake to smugly assume that television has surpassed movies. The best movies (mostly foreign) are better than the best TV, even today.

I especially agree with 1, 2, 6, and 8.

Assorted Links

Going through stuff saved in Evernote.

1) Selling Out: An Artist’s Search for Money and Meaning

2) “Sound is also the only truly tactile dimension of the cinema. It is the only way in which the cinema physically touches the spectator.”

3) The Sex and Cash Theory.

Joe Swanberg’s Keynote at SXSW on his indie film career and financing his films

I enjoyed this one just as much as the one with Mark Duplass. I really love Joe’s films and while I don’t necessarily work in his style or want to make similar films, I’ve learned a lot from his DIY career approach and the way that he’s making a living as  a filmmaker without giving up creative control.

Kubrick on originality in film

I try to be, anyway. I think that one of the problems with twentieth-century art is its preoccupation with subjectivity and originality at the expense of everything else. This has been especially true in painting and music. Though initially stimulating, this soon impeded the full development of any particular style, and rewarded uninteresting and sterile originality. At the same time, it is very sad to say, films have had the opposite problem — they have consistently tried to formalize and repeat success, and they have clung to a form and style introduced in their infancy. The sure thing is what everone wants, and originality is not a nice word in this context. This is true despite the repeated example that nothing is as dangerous as a sure thing.

Via.

Mark Duplass on career development for filmmakers

The first 25 minutes of this, before the Q&A (which is also good), is a great roadmap for how to “make it” as a filmmaker. Become the cavalry, as he says.

Are there too many films being made?

In the past few months, I’ve read articles about how there are too many films being made. And that there are too many TV shows. I’ve also heard friends say that there are too many podcasts now.

What to make of this? And what does it mean for someone like me that is hoping to bring more films into the world?

My first reaction to the “there’s too many x” statement was to disagree on a level that I couldn’t elaborate. I thought about it for a few days, considering that I might be reacting that way simply because I don’t want it to be true and I’m biased to look for evidence/arguments that confirm what I want to be true. With the bias in mind, here’s why I think the too much argument is wrong.

First of all, the question “are there too many films being made?” begs the question. It assumes a premise which isn’t true–that there is an optimal number of films to be made every year. There’s no optimal number. The articles that say there are too many x don’t even attempt to posit an optimal number of x to be made and I take that as a sign that they don’t really believe there is such a number.

Maybe what they’re really getting at is that there are too many bad films made per year. I agree that there are a lot of bad films made now. I don’t think that’s much different from past eras though, whose bad films we don’t really think or talk about because they’ve faded into oblivion. There’s usually a bias to look at past eras as being better art-wise because we look at all the great films made in the 70s and forget the bad ones. This goes back to pretty much any era — how many shitty plays were written by the Greeks? I don’t know but I’m guessing a fair amount. I think, and I admit I don’t really have any hard evidence to back this up, that we tend to judge past eras by their best achievements and judge the present era more fairly, weighing the good with the bad and sometimes weighing the bad more heavily when we want to prove a point.

It seems like the optimal number of bad films made per year would be 0, until you consider that a) great filmmakers sometimes make duds and if there was a magic way to ensure ahead of time that every film was great, then well, that’s impossible so on to b) sometimes bad films are a stepping stone on the way to good films, as filmmakers learn the craft and improve, and the only way to keep developing good filmmakers is to allow them to experiment and grow and fail, and c) sometimes bad films turn out to be really great in their own way, and d) I don’t know what d is but there’s probably another reason that I can’t think of now.

Maybe what people are really getting at is the feeling of being overwhelmed. For critics, it’s the feeling that there’s too much to review, that they have to go see a lot of crap just because it’s been 4-walled and their editors make them review it. That seems like more of a problem with editorial policies than movie production volume — I don’t think there’s any reason that reviewers should be required to review everything that gets a showing in a theater.

Is this an issue for non-critics? Well, we don’t have to watch all of them. If you’re watching on Netflix, there’s no marginal cost to watching a bad movie (except for the time wasted, but you can quit after 15 minutes of badness).

Most of the bad ones probably don’t get seen by more than a handful of people. Most of us rely on curators to help us choose what to watch: aggregators like Netflix and Hulu, Criterion, online ratings, online/newspaper/magazine reviewers, etc. If someone wants to argue that we haven’t yet figured out a way to really curate well, then I’m pretty partial to that argument. That could be better. The Netflix recommendation algorithm is sometimes comically wrong. My cinephile friends are usually really good curators. So are podcasts like Filmspotting.

The trick to navigating this modern world of abundance is to find people and outlets that you can trust to recommend good things for you. It takes a little extra work. And better curation can be solved with technology.

Another problem is that, as a society, we have less culture in common. Water cooler talk is a lot more disjointed. How many times in the last five years have you had a conversation where you ask “have you seen/heard/read x?” and nobody else has? It happens to me all the time. Sometimes the group has to offer up four or five different shows or films or whatever before hitting on one that has been seen by the majority of the group. With TV, sometimes you find a show that everyone watches but everyone is on a different distribution schedule so you can’t talk about the latest season because one person is still waiting for it to go Prime on Amazon or to come onto Netflix.

The flip side is that it’s much more likely that there’s a show out there that really appeals to your tastes but would never have been made 30 years ago because it doesn’t appeal to a mass audience. Which is a better world to live in? Would you be willing to kill off most of your favorite shows to go back to a world where everyone was on the same page, culturally? It would be an interesting question to discuss at cocktail parties (if anyone ever invited me to cocktail parties. Like seriously, where are all these cocktail parties that everyone keeps talking about?) but it’s ultimately beside the point–the world isn’t going to revert to the old ways.

OK, so that’s the consumer. But what about for the filmmaker or aspiring filmmaker?

Should you and I make something if there are already a lot of films out there? Yeah, if you want to. That’s a dumb question. As long as you’re using your own money (or money you got investors to give you voluntarily), I don’t see the issue. What about the crew that isn’t getting paid a lot? Well they’re there voluntarily. There’s no law that says they’re required to work on your film. They’re free to negotiate for higher rates. They’re free to read your script ahead of time and decide if it’s the kind of project that’s likely to help their career along. I don’t see how reducing the number of films made improves the economic choices available to actors and crew-people.

Does the world need more films? I don’t know. Maybe. Probably not. Probably. How can you answer that question?

OK, yeah, but this really sucks! It’s like almost impossible to get anyone to see my film!

Yeah, it’s harder than ever to get people to see your film. It will probably only get harder in the future. That does suck. But the technological factors that make it easier to make a movie today also make it harder to break through the noise. When I hear filmmakers complain about “too many films,” I sympathize with this sentiment but it strikes me as a bit disingenuous.

Would you rather go back to the time when it was really expensive to make films? Would you rather live in a world where you had to raise $250,000 instead of $25,000 to make your first feature? It’s the same attitude as a teenager screaming “I hate you dad! I wish I had never been born!” Really? This is so bad that you wish you didn’t exist? Wishing for less competition is wishing for a time when most filmmakers wouldn’t be able to exist, which is why this line seems disingenuous. Unless, of course, there was some overarching body that limited the number of films made each year. But I don’t think anyone really wants that. Who decides? The government? Do you want the government deciding whether or not you can make a movie? Or some kind of film standards organization? That’s not a world I want to live in.

I think filmmakers that say this kind of thing are really saying “I wish that there was only a handful of us making films, so that there was a lot less competition, but it was still really cheap to make films.” Yeah, that would be nice. I also wish I had 10 million dollars lying around and that I could eat pizza all day without gaining weight or feeling terrible.

It’s great that it’s really easy to make a movie (or a podcast or a book or even a TV show or an album). But the new reality is that it’s hard to break through. Which is pretty much the same as the old reality, where gatekeepers kept you off the air or out of theaters or without the money to make what you want. Not only did the game done changed, but it ALSO got more fierce, as Slim Charles might say if he were writing this instead of me.

OK, but seriously, there is a real problem here. There are going to be some really good indies made that never get seen by a wide audience because there’s too much chaff out there. I’ve seen some really great films at festivals this year that most of my non-filmmaker friends have never heard of. Part of the answer to this is in better curation. But as a filmmaker that doesn’t really help me today. I can’t make a better Netflix algorithm. I need an actionable strategy.

Whatever are we to do?

I certainly don’t have an answer and I don’t think there’s an “easy” answer out there, just lying around waiting to be discovered.

But first, thank the Gods that you don’t want to be a famous poet or get paid tons to do improv, because if you think it’s hard making a living as a filmmaker…

Second, I’m pretty sure that the answer involves building an audience slowly and organically. Make one thing, get a few people to see it, and do your best to establish a relationship with them so that you can tell them when you are making something else. Find a way to stay connected so they’ll be there when you need to raise money through crowdfunding or you need help spreading the word. Do this as best you can for somewhere between 3 and 30 years, and hopefully you’ll be able to make enough to live on (or get noticed by Hollywood and get paid to write/direct TV or studio films). And your success will be easier and faster if you’re good enough and lucky enough to get help from some of the curators and gatekeepers along the way.

Some people will be brilliant and die in obscurity or never make a living as an artist. Some people will get rich and famous without deserving it.

That sucks. It’s not fair. But it ranks pretty low on the list of current injustices in the world. And I say that as someone who has achieved neither wealth nor notoriety (knowing full well that I haven’t made anything that would merit either!).

One of my favorite musicians wrote a really good piece on this whole phenomenon in the music industry, called “Why Your Music Is Worthless (And How to Sell It Anyway). It’s a long but really good look at the economic factors that make it so hard to be a working musician today (basically, there’s a huge abundance of music and it’s really hard to get people to pay for it and tough luck it’s not going to change so you should start thinking creatively about how to make money from your music and while it’s really hard, it’s also not impossible).

I was going to excerpt it but I couldn’t find any magically concise quotes that would make for nice shareable content on Tumblr. If you’re serious about figuring out this problem of marketing yourself as an artist, you should probably read the whole thing.

The phrase “starving artist” is relatively new

Grubstake

grubstake: Supplies or funds advanced to a mining prospector or a person starting a business in return for a promised share of the profits.
n. Money, materials, tools, food etc. provided to a prospector in return for a share in future profits
n. An amount of money advanced to someone starting a business in return for a share of the future profits

File this under “words I wish people used in everyday conversation,” as in “lookin’ for some grubstake to get this film off the ground.”

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