As independent filmmakers craft their projects, working from the script phase right through production, they are faced with this question:
What should be their most important priorities in creating a narrative that’s compelling to audiences and commercially viable?
Many filmmakers fall into the trap of chasing “production value,” with the idea that if their film looks like it’s more expensive than it is, that will somehow lead to praise and profits. Unfortunately, that would only be the case if your audience were composed of production managers.
Trust me, the fact that your $400,000 film looks like it cost a million bucks really isn’t going to get you anywhere. Festival judges, acquisition executives, and the audience are more interested in how entertaining and engrossing your story is.
The visual qualities that make a film look slick have a lot more to do with the planning and execution by the creative team, starting with the writer-director, than whether or not you were able to wrangle some crazed pyro dude to blow up a car. And a well-lit boiler room can be a heck of a lot more visually compelling than that fancy house you blew all of your location budget on, especially if you don’t have enough money left over to properly dress it.
Here then are FIVE KEY PRIORITIES that independent writer-directors should focus on:
1) SHOT QUALITY
Strong compositions and camera movement enhance cinematic storytelling. Deft use of the foreground and background, varying shot sizes, evocative angles, and smooth shot flow are best achieved by meticulous and careful planning. Mentally pre-editing the film pays huge dividends both creatively and logistically. It doesn’t cost money to choose powerful shots that cut together like butter, just mental capital. There’s no overstating the value of your investment in pre-visualization.
The ever-shortening attention span of the modern audience has made crisp pacing more vital than ever. This pertains to every phase of cinematic storytelling, starting with the script. The internal pacing of scenes can’t be fixed in editing. Directors must pay close attention to it during shooting. Indie projects with other laudable qualities turn out to be unwatchable due to poor pacing more often than any other reason.
3) NARRATIVE PROPULSION
Does something happen that moves the story along and affects the protagonist’s pursuit of his goal in EVERY scene? If not, get rid of the scenes that don’t accomplish this, or combine those scenes with ones where something meaningful takes place. Stopping the STORY to explore a character or philosophical point is usually the kiss of death. You’ll waste a lot of your resources shooting scenes that you’ll be forced to cut later.
A good story well-performed will entertain an audience no matter what the other values of a production are. The script and the acting are more important than cinematography, fancy shots, or anything else. Do you know how to direct actors? Can you truly help them to improve their performances and tell your story? If not, make it your business to learn how to work with the most important people on your show – the actors.
5) RAISING THE STAKES
Your stakes need to keep rising throughout the course of your story, filling the audience with an ever-increasing need to find out what happens next. If the consequences of the events in your film don’t feel a lot greater by the third act than they did in the first, it’s time to retool your tale.