June 16th 2006 
 Independent Filmmakers Alliance Newsletter
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In this issue we take a look at one of the key aspects of Indie film success:
Balancing the head the heart

 How to find Indie success by balancing creativity and commerce
 by Karina Halle
  How to find Indie success by balancing creativity and commerce

In Hollywood, it usually takes ages to get anything done. That’s why Suzanne Lyon’s and Kate Robbin’s Snowfall Films stand apart from the pack. Over the last four years, the indie film company has managed to produce a total of seven films, including Undertaking Betty, a British comedy starring Christopher Walken and Naomi Watts and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, with Winona Ryder and Peter Fonda. They are currently in post-production on the low-budget horror Séance, which is written by Mark L. Smith who penned the upcoming studio thriller Vacancy.

The company’s success over the years has a lot to do with the ingenuity and practicality of its producers Suzanne Lyons and Kate Robbins, who have managed to balance the creative side of filmmaking with the business side.

 “Kate and I are big believers of being on the set,” says Lyons. “We are really into the hands on type of thing and wearing the business hat and the creative hat at all times. So that’s a big deal with us. We are also people who like to do a lot of the casting ourselves as well. We probably do the casting on 80 per cent of each movie that we actually produce. Then on the smaller ones we do the 100 per cent of the casting because there is no casting director in the budget.”

They’ve even gone as far as to pull people off the street when they’ve run out of extras.

“We drafted a lot of people,” laughs Robbins. “We did that on the one day we shot outside on Séance. We only had a couple of exterior days and one day we needed more people to be on a street scene. Where we were filming there was a bunch of little kids standing off to the side so now they are all in the movie! We got release forms and got their parents to sign them.”

Lyons pipes in: “If you walk by when Kate and I are producing a movie, you will definitely end up in it.” Besides being able to multi-task, Lyons and Robbins also credit the success to the support they receive from within the indie film industry.

“We have a lot of great help from wonderful friends,” says Lyons, “And in my other company, The Flash Forward Institute, I’ve got so many wonderful participants and students over the last 12 years in Canada and the United States that wherever we go, we always get lots of great people coming in and supporting us. It’s just amazing.”

Having mentors is another route that Snowfall has taken. Every time they start on a new project, they enlist the help of several mentors to help them through it. Though it’s a strategy that’s unheard of in some parts of the industry, Lyons believes it’s extremely beneficial to anyone in filmmaking, whether it be for indie or studio films.

“We are big believers in mentors. If we ever start something new, we make sure to get a few mentors to help us through the project. People in L.A. are actually extremely open and always willing to help you.”

Mentors are not only useful for the creative aspects of filmmaking, but for the business side as well. Snowfall not only produces indies, but has also made studio-oriented films, and the two types of filmmaking couldn’t be more different.

“It’s a completely different animal in a sense,” says Lyons. “In our case with the higher budget films - it’s really more like being a business person as well as a producer. You have to wear your creative hat and your business hat at the same time. Also, you usually have two or three different sets of partners and sometimes on these bigger productions you also have studios. Like in the case of one of our productions, we had Miramax that we had to address all the time.”

However, when it comes to the low-budget films, Lyons says you have more opportunities to be creative.

“In the case of the indie filmmaker at the lower budget, what’s so fun is that it’s really your baby. The producer and the director and the writer get together and you can really have a great time and be completely creative because you don’t have to answer to governments or big studios, so there is so much more freedom that its just a ball and you can really get in there and do what you want and create the type of film that you want to create.”

Regardless of whether it’s a higher-budget film or a lower budget film, Lyons and Robbins stress that there are some important lessons they’ve learned that can be applied to all filmmakers.

“I would think the first words a producer must learn is chain of title,” says Robbins. “And if you don’t have chain of title, you don’t have a film. I can’t tell you the number of times that Suzanne and I have had people come to us and tell us they have this great picture and we’ve asked them about the rights and they don’t have them. It’s shocking. People just don’t want to say to somebody ‘I need an option for X number of times and it has to be clear and I have to be able to exercise that option’.”

Lyons agrees, “And it’s not just the options. What I’ve realized recently just talking to other producers is that sometimes people will say ‘let’s partner up’ and they say ‘you bring this to the party and I’ll bring that to the party.’ The minute you decide to be partners, you put down a piece of paper and sign it.”

“If you don’t,” adds Robbins, “then you are just asking for trouble.”

Lyons is also a firm believer in dealing with the reality of the film industry and credits their success to dealing with the straight facts 99.9 per cent of the time.

“So many times in the entertainment industry we live in hope and that’s why a lot of time indie producers don’t get things accomplished, it's because they are still hoping. ‘Oh I’m hoping to get that big movie star to do my film.’ There is so much living in hope that people put things off and off. Kate and I learned that, years ago. It’s not that we didn’t do that. We did that for a few years and finally after a few years of nothing happening, we thought you know what, let’s just deal with the facts – literally deal with the facts. Forget the hope. Hope is something you can do on your Sunday service. It really does not belong in the entertainment industry. We don’t even use the word.”

Far from it to say you can’t have hope within the industry. But it’s key to balance the reality with your hopes and dreams.

“Just deal with the facts,” says Lyons. “For this kind of budget, what are the real actors who would be thrilled to come on board, who are the kind of directors that we could be working with given this type of genre, given this type of script?”

Another incentive for the business side of indie filmmaking is the increasing popularity of DVD sales and the decrease in dollars at the box office.

“It’s helped tremendously,” says Lyons. “With even more new technology coming with the phones and that sort of thing, eventually the box office will continue to drop more and more. The evolution of High Definition has also helped indie films. Four or five years ago to do an HD and then put it on the big screen was difficult because it still had that graininess, but nowadays even Lucas is using it. It’s so perfected now that people can’t tell the difference, so I think that’s helped. In our particular budgets it’s probably a difference of around $30,000, if we had gone film versus HD. It just opens up to the independent filmmakers, so it’s a huge possibility.”

Keeping with the indie spirit, Snowfall Films is also open to accepting submissions from hopeful screenwriters.

“What we ask people to do, is that if they have a project they want to bring to us, that they give us a submission agreement,” says Robbins. “What we don’t want is scripts. We want a synopsis first. If we see a synopsis for a project that sounds great, we will read the script. It may take us a month or two, but we will read it.”

“And if something comes highly recommended,” says Lyons. “A friend of mine called yesterday and she said ‘guys I’ve just found the most amazing horror movie for you and it’s low budget.’ And in that case, I’m going to read it, for sure – referrals and recommendations are so valuable in this industry.”

At the end of the day, both Lyons and Robbins believe that you have to know the business side of filmmaking in order to excel at the creative side.

“Kate and I learned that in ‘showbusiness’ the business should come first; it’s a bigger word, its two syllables, it’s more important,” says Lyons. “With showbusiness, business is the operative word.”
Adds Robbins, “And without it you don’t get to be part of the show.”

For more information on Snowfall Films visit www.snowfallfilms.com. For comments or further story ideas, please contact karina at karina@ifilmalliance.com. Find out more.... - www.ifilmalliance.com

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