Norman Berns is a filmmaker and the founder of Reelgrok; here is a link to the website:
Q: What is your background in filmmaking?
A: It actually began in theatre. Got my Equity card as a stage manager, but started directing as soon as I could get in front of the curtain. Did years of dinner theatre and had a real ball at it. Still miss it. But I was catering to a crowd that came for the buffet but stayed for the play. That meant I always had to fight to get a distracted audience to focus where I wanted them to focus.
The first time I was on a film set, bang, zoom, I had the answer. Cut. Close Up. Pan. Zoom…. You can’t do that on stage.
By then I was living in New York and I was ready to learn everything, work on anything, paid, unpaid, terrible little movies that made me rush home to wash the blood and gore off my soul. But those horrible little gems taught me how to build a story visually.
I became an AC, did a bit of gaffing, worked props. The jobs never mattered much to me; I fell in love with the whole process.
Eventually, I got a shot at running the show. First as an assistant director, then years in, as production manager, eventually as producer and finally, full circle, back again as the director.
Now, as much as I love producing and directing, I still shoot set stills when I can, I’m still happy hauling cables and setting up the camera. Good lighting gives me chills of joy.
I think filmmaking is the most amazingly rich, wonderful storytelling process. And it’s that whole process I care about. Someday, maybe, there’ll be something better, but I can’t imagine what that would be. And besides, it’s not here yet so I make movies.
Q: What inspired you to start Reelgrok?
A: Madness. A sudden bout of unrepressed madness.
The thing is, teaching is supposed to be a natural part of filmmaking. You know, the whole gaffer-best boy relationship. Despite a very few, very rare auteurs, film is a pastiche of all the talent that went into it, a communal effort. If we don’t bring up the next person, there’ll be no community, no one to take over. And very few of us can do it all on our own.
Let me back off for a minute and explain how I get to this point.
I got really, really lucky starting out. The casting legend, Marion Dougherty, insisted on casting me in the movie “The Hospital.” (Yes, I was actually discovered working as a waiter.) I took the role (hey, it paid), but I negotiated a job as an “observer” (no, no, not like the “Fringe” baldies).
Incredible industry pros simply accepted me, invited me into every private meeting. Paddy Chayefsky had me “write” a scene with him, Arthur Hiller let me “help direct”…. It’s a very long list. The show went on for months and it changed the rest of my life.
I’ve still keep notebooks filled with the information they gave me. Once I understood, I vowed that someday, somehow, someway I’d try to repay their mentorship. That’s what reelgrok is about. Passing on what I know, helping the next generation pick up what I learned.
Q: What is the most common mistake filmmakers, make when looking to fund a film?
A: Two bigs ones.
The first is not understanding that film is a group effort. That very few of us could make a movie without the support of all the other people on the crew, from the DP to the last PA. Even legends like Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman needed great cameramen, brilliant gaffers, incredible set designers….
The second is even worse. It’s being unprepared.
Too many new filmmakers treat filmmaking as if it were some sort of game, a fun way to tell a good story. (“Good” being a euphemism for whatever floats your boat. Odds are good your “good” and my “good” are not on speaking terms.)
To an investor, filmmaking is a business. It’s how they plan to make a profit.
Of course there’s no harm in just shooting away, doing your best, money be damned, because maybe you’re a fucking genius and Mr. Money will notice all of your great art and shower you with wealth. Oddly enough, it’s actually happened. But more likely you’ll wear yourself down to a dull nub and push your credit cards to the point of no reserve.
Every film is like starting a business. Or going to war. Pretty much the same thing. You have to stay focused on winning. You need to gather your troops – not just any troops, but the best of the best. You need to know the cost of everything and you need to know exactly where and how and when and why you need to spend the money to get it.
Ultimately, you need to know where to find your audience. When you’re running your show on the leavings in your wallet, you can do whatever you want. Hell, put it on YouTube and party as soon as three people see it. But when you go looking for an investor, you need to explain EXACTLY how that investor can possibly see a profit.
It’s amazing how many filmmakers don’t understand how to make a budget. Oh, they can add the numbers, but they have no idea that they’re making a blueprint for building their film. They want to direct, but don’t know how to talk to actors, they want to produce by don’t understand contracts. They want so much, but don’t have the skills they’ll need to get the job done right.
My seminars are all on CD now (https://www.reelgrok.com/products.cfm?Category_ID=4) and we sell quite a few. But not enough, not nearly enough to cover all the things filmmakers need to know.
I actually keep files filled with “mistakes filmmakers make” and use them in my classes. Some are funny, most are just sadly oblivious to the incredible art and business of filmmaking and its hundred year history.
Q: What is your strangest filmmaking story?
A: I think almost every movie must be fodder for “the strangest filmmaking story” of all time.
There was the mad director who refused to look at the production schedule – “I make movies,” he was fond of saying, “not schedules.” Of course that show ran out of money long before it ran through the script. There was the director who could never quite wrap his head around the idea that he was the one who called ACTION and CUT. We burned a lot, a lot, a lot of film before he finally caught on or I got the AD to take over.
One day, on a scout deep in the weeds, far from anything resembling a road, my producer was feeling unusually macho. “Keep driving,” he screamed. “No, it’s all mud ahead,” I screamed back. “Gun it, gun it, go, go, go.” I did. The car sank up to its axels. It took a good-sized truck to extract us. If there is such a thing as quickmud, we found it.
I think every shoot, from the best to the worst, has at least one OHMYGOD, YOU WON’T BELIEVE THIS story. Hey, we’re all out there learning; sometimes we trip over our own good intentions.
Q: What makes an indie film marketable?
A: Great marketing.
A solid lock on the intended audience. Do you have any idea how many filmmakers don’t know their audience? Who have no idea who will see their film beyond “folks who like it.”
Marketing needs a realistic plan for getting to your audience. And, of course persistence. And money. Energy. Drive. Focus.
The subject really doesn’t matter. There seems to be an audience for almost anything. The task is identifying the audience and knowing how to talk to them.
Delivering a really good film doesn’t hurt, of course, but it’s way down on the list.
We never wanted it that way, we never asked for it and we still won’t believe it, but filmmakers all work in sales. Isn’t that what a film is? Really? Selling an idea to your investors, then to your crew and your cast and finally to your audience.
That selling, the marketing, doesn’t stop because the film is over. Hell, that’s when it breaks into high gear.
Q: What is the most overrated independent film in the last twenty years and why?
A: Bad question. We’re really missing the point about independent films. By their nature, indie films are experimental. They’re supposed to push the edge, try new approaches, discover a new world in new ways. Hell, they’re not underfunded Hollywood films. They are their own thing, the orphan love-child of Art and Business.
Indie films are indies for one of two reasons. Either Hollywood didn’t want them. Or they didn’t want Hollywood. Either way, they’re their own genre and their job is to carve out new space.
That means indie films – by design – will fail more often that studio films. Despite fewer resources, they will try more, brave more, risk more. And fall flat on their celluloid more often than the endless churn of Big Boy films.
That’s absolutely wonderful; beautiful daring risk-taking should be nurtured, applauded.
For example, the Guthrie in Minneapolis is a complex of theatres. Way upstairs, hard to find, is their little experimental theatre, down an oddly raked hallway of angled windows, next to a ramp stretching out over the Mississippi, across a disconcerting glass floor that connects to the theatre.
It feels odd, even dangerous, just getting there. And you gird your goodies for whatever may lie ahead. You know this is not going to be ordinary.
That’s what indie films are supposed to be about. A raw space across a twisted room at the far end of a glass floor, next to a bridge stretching into infinity.
If indie films never fail, they’re not trying hard enough. They’re just copying Hollywood (which is way too busy copying itself already) instead of finding a new voice. At its worse, we get Hollywood on a shoestring. At its best we get our minds screwed on backwards and inside out and filled with more goodies than a gimme bag on Halloween.
At its very best, you get incredibly quirky films like “Moonrise Kingdom” or the stunningly brilliant hushpuppy of a movie, “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” So maybe instead of dissing the bad films – and there are at least a few jawbreakers every year – we can keep ourselves safe and warm acknowledging the brilliant work being done by indie filmmakers.
Truth is, I can’t imagine how those two films got funded and made. I’m only grateful that they were and they were.
Q: What is the best marketing campaign you have seen for an indie film?
A: That’s always the same answer. I really, really wish it weren’t so because I hated the movie, but no one’s ever bested the marketing for “Blair Witch.” It was carefully thought out, well planned, brilliantly executed. Every filmmaker who’s hoping to create THE NEXT BIG SHOW should study the marketing of that film very carefully.
And, of course, get a couple of million dollars to make it happen.
The important takeaway in this case is that the movie was meaningless. Literally and figuratively. Once we saw it, we all knew it was a real piece of crap and we’d been had. It was far worse than most first timers could churn out with their Saturday Night Special Handycams. But the buzz was so great, no one cared. It was the thing to see, it was in your face, it was amazing. So everyone walked out and threw up, but so what. They paid to walk in.
That kind of marketing campaign takes an enormous amount of advance time, lots of money, careful planning, clear focus, a sharply targeted audience and persistence. And persistence. And persistence.
Did I mention lots and lots of money? Did I stress lots of time, too. This kind of campaign has to be well planned as well as well executed. It starts long before a frame is shot and it’s as integral to the movie as picking camera angles or figuring out where to cut.
Q: What is the biggest change you have seen in independent film in your career?
A: It’s only been a few years since we moved from short ends to memory cards. But even all that good tech aside, the biggest impact has been distribution and financing. Wait, that’s tech-based, too.
Reality is, everything has changed for indie filmmakers.
Once upon a time, long, long ago, there were real distributors out there. Filmmakers could make presales, get advances and have just enough money to raise the rest of the money they needed to make the movie. It was risky and dangerous and difficult, but there was a real support system with a built-in audience and profits on the other end.
Poof. That’s gone. We gained the internet and lost our indie distributors.
Oh, there are a few out there. But the ones with enough clout to matter are run like mini-studios and no easier to reach than the studios. And the ones without clout are about as useful as your Aunt Tillie.
For the most part, the big studios own the theatres. Okay, not literally OWN, good gosh that would be illegal. Instead they control the flow of content, which is probably even more profitable and much more manipulative and duplicitous than actually owning them.
Which means that indie producers are mostly on their own. If they can find a theatre that’ll peg them in between tentpoles, they have to do their own promotion, they own marketing. And it’s a minefield unless you’re an SEO pro and a social media maven. Or have the smarts to hire one of the good ones. (Ask, I’d be more than happy to pass along the names I know.)
For most indies, Opening Night isn’t in a theatre anymore. It’s on a cellphone. It’s a VOD download. It’s Redbox or Amazon or Netflix (if you’re extra lucky). Then again, the potential audience for your film has jumped from a few million to lots of billions.
Think about that. I said BILLIONS. All you have to do is figure out how to get to them. And set a price they can afford to pay. Doesn’t quite have the glamor of klieg light openings, but it can be a lot more lucrative.
Financing is the other big change. It’s an entirely new universe. There are so many incredible options, from the extension of Section 181 to crowdfunding to the rise of debt financing.
I know filmmakers who are using all three, individually or together.
181 is pretty much a no-brainer. Filmmakers should qualify for it whether they want it or not, then use it if it suits their backers.
Crowdfunding is available, but it takes a lot of work to be successful. It’s no free marketplace with shelves of money to be taken like apples at the farmers’ market. Filmmakers need to make a huge effort, enlist serious guidance and invest a fair amount of money to do it right. If you build it, no one will come unless you let them know about it.
Then there’s debt.
I still remember when debt was the worst idea. Just a few years back I was warning my students to sit on their credit cards and stay out of the loan department. Those two things are still correct, but the nature of debt has changed. I’m starting to see shows that have had extraordinarily good luck incorporating debt financing into their funding.
Don’t panic. This isn’t your father’s kind of debt. On the best of deals (and the only ones that should be considered, the picture (not the filmmaker) is the sole collateral for the funding. It work amazingly well and I’ve been seeing some wonderful films being shot because of it.
Like anything else in this business, it’s not easy to qualify. And not every film is right for debt. But if your project can fit, it’s an ideal – and mostly untapped – resource.
Q: What kinds of films would you like to see more of and why?
A: Well, gee, how about more films that I make? You know the type. Well-funding movies with a searing message, films that do extraordinarily well, earn a zillion dollars and turn me into a mogul.
Hey, you asked….
Everyone on earth, I’d imagine, would like to see more good films, interesting films, exciting films, thinking films, fun films.
I want films that surprise and delight. Network television already churns out more than enough mind-numbing crap. Comic books, never a fount of great wisdom, have been drained of every pow, bam and boom in search of sales.
Movies – real movies – should take you to places you’ve never been, never imagined being, telling you things you never knew you wanted to know, needed to see.
I would never have “liked to see” a film like, say “Lincoln.” I’m no history buff or battleground aficionado. So why would anyone in the world want to see a film about an overly tall and very dead president waging a war that some are still fighting. That’s fodder for history class and Classic Comics, surely not a real movie. As one wag put it, “why bother; I know how it ends.”
Until you actually see “Lincoln” and realize that it’s exactly the movie you’ve always wanted to see. So stunningly insightful and good that it sets the mark for movie bios forever. Or until the next great film is made.
Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects:)