Giving birth to a production is much like giving birth to a baby (Guys, bare with me for a moment...). Once it's finished and in your arms, you forget about the morning sickness, the stretch marks and the labor pains. The remarkableness of the miracle before you erases all the bad memories, or at least dulls them until they are but a distant memory. So, when I was asked to write this blog about our experience as a fledgling production company undertaking our very first scripted production, I was enthusiastic and eager. Then, I sat down to write it and figured out that what I had agreed to was a bigger task than I initially realized. The swarm of memories, some still fuzzy from the afterglow of birthing such a product, is overwhelming and hard to pare down to a cohesive and interesting blog post. This is my fourth attempt and hopefully my final attempt.
Our company, Little Fish Entertainment, started as just a mother and daughter team wanting to produce music videos and festivals. The daughter, my daughter, Ellysa Rose, is an up and coming actress and singer songwriter. In 2013, she released her first single on iTunes, Content With a Memory. Well, every good song needs a good video, right? Our budget, being what it is, necessitated some DIY intervention and our company was born. Two music videos and two music festivals later, we felt confident. We were getting pretty good at this whole production thing. So, when the idea to film a short two to three minute webisode came across our desk, we jumped in with both feet. When it blossomed from a simple production to a full blown scene/pilot presentation it felt more like diving in head first.
We had NO experience in producing scripted projects but that didn't scare us. Well, not at first. We didn't know how much we really didn't know. (After all, we had been involved in the business for a couple of years at this point and felt we had a basic understanding of the process.) Basic is exactly where our education level started. Slightly higher than your average audience member in Iowa. Thanks to Al Gore inventing the internet (ha) we had a wealth of knowledge at our finger tips. We delved right in. We searched 'How to write a screenplay' and 'Producing a TV Pilot' as well as 'Single Camera Comedy' and 'Budgeting your next TV or film project' amongst many, many other things. The more we researched, the more we learned and the more we didn't know what we didn't know. We didn't let anything stop us. We partnered with friends who also happen to be mother and daughter. Now we had super-girl power and no kryptonite in sight.
Was it difficult? You bet--but we had a drive and determination to make this happen that propelled us through. In addition to our determination, one of the biggest reasons for our success was the fact that we aligned ourselves with the right people. We leaned heavily on our DP, Stephanie Ollerton, for guidance and advice. She was instrumental in helping us gather knowledgeable and talented crew. And our Director, Andrew Lauer, was also a big source of information and encouragement. Without these two people, we would have had a much tougher task at hand. So Learning Curve #1 (LC#1) is that finding the right people is crucial to the success of any project in life, but never more so than when tackling something so very big and very new to you.
Some of the hurdles we encountered could have thwarted us at any moment; the budget probably being the biggest. We estimated that we would need $25,000 to film our 22 minutes. That is pretty conservative for Hollywood... only $1000 per minute? But 25k is a lot of money in our world, so we knew we had to cut the budget by 75% if we were going to make it a reality. The two girls took to the internet to raise the money using the crowd funding power of IndieGoGo. They reached their goal of $6,000 with a little to spare and we went to work figuring out how to cut our production costs down. In the end, we blew our budget due to our failure to accurately assess the cost of things like--amongst others--insurance premiums, equipment rental, set dressing, and craft services. I think we tended to look through rose tinted glasses...but if we didn't, we probably never would have even tried in the first place. (LC#2... hire a good line producer so that you have an accurate picture of the costs before you start.)
In trying to stick to the new 6k budget, we reworked the script to tell the story in less time. We cut the script from 30 pages down to 11. Those 11 pages turned into a rough cut that was 11 minutes long; soon, we paired it down even further to 7, and finally 5:30 and a one minute trailer. Leaving parts of the script behind felt like leaving one of our limbs behind at first, but in reality, it proved to be more like losing a few pounds...we looked much better without the excess weight. Having nurtured the project, coddling it through its infancy, it made this one of the hardest parts of the whole process. We probably would have been able to stick to our initial 6k budget if we had been more ruthless with our script changes from the beginning. We ended up completely eliminating the opening scene from the final 5 minute version; it didn't add anything to really promote our series' logline. While it was good and funny and would be great in the full version of the script, it wasn't essential to the life of the story and in the end, it had to be cut. (LC#3... be ruthless with your script edits. It will save you time, money and hassle later on.)
That brings me to another pitfall... Post Production. Production is exciting and fun. It is easy to get caught up in the moment and forget that the real work begins in post. Don't skimp on editing. This is not the place to save money. A good editor is crucial. A good editor isn't necessarily the one with the most skill but the one that gets your and the director's vision and can make it come to life. If your editor can't do that, it doesn't mean they don't have the right skills, they just might not have the right vision. We struggled here. The first rough edit was far off from our vision. It was a tenuous situation that jeopardized the entire project. In the end, we made things work by sitting alongside our editor throughout the rest of the process. It was time consuming but necessary...but this delayed our project by almost two months! Because of the delays and a scheduling conflict with our initial editor, I ended up making the final revisions myself, which took our 11 minute project down to its final 5:30. Yet another hurdle to overcome. (LC #4... really get to know your editor before you hire him or her. Make sure they understand your vision and have the skills to pull it off. Pay more if you have to. It's worth it!)
The education we gained from both the internet and just actually doing the project from start to finish is more valuable than any lessons we could have learned in school. Be prepared to do as much as you can yourself. Ultimately, your success, and the success of your project, depends upon you. Don't let lack of experience thwart you. If you can dream it, you can achieve it. Be courageous. Be artful. Be bold. As Royal's (AKA Ellysa Rose) song says, “Be Free”.
- Written by Melody Herr, producer of "The Royals"