Welcome to Going Bionic #220. Today we’re continuing our series on Managing Expectations by focusing on what to expect out of your first project. While some “first projects” are what dreams are made of, most are nightmares that turn into comical war stories years after the fact. While failure is never funny when you’re knee-deep in the middle of it, but it usually always is a steppingstone to bigger and better opportunities. So, without further ado, here are some thoughts on how to manage your expectations of creating and selling your first project, whether it is a feature film, TV/cable show, or script.

Your Maiden Voyage Will Probably Not Make Money
The first big pill you may have to swallow is that your first project is probably not going to make money. Should your film or script it break out of the pack of the thousands of projects made in the year it’s released, then Godspeed on your way to stardom. However, if it doesn’t light the world on fire, then you should be prepared to write it off as a loss, or have your investors write it off if you’re lucky enough to have investors.

Knowing how unlikely it is to make a profit the first time out, you’ll want to keep your budget low. That way, you’ll be a lot closer to realizing financial break-even, and if you don’t achieve break-even, at least your losses will hurt less. Thus, you should treat your first project’s budget as the price of admission into the amusement park that will become your career. Remember, while most people love going to Disneyland (especially on days when all the rides are working on there’s not a lot of traffic in the park), not many get to experience the Magic Kingdom without feeling a little pinch in your wallet or purse. It’s the same with your career in entertainment. Sure, you can come in and play on the roller coasters of the film industry, but you’ll have to pay handsomely for the privilege.

Film Festivals
Since so few film festivals mean anything to the advancement of your career, you should really hold out to see if you can wrangle the attention of one of the “big six” titans. The biggest festivals on the planet are Cannes, Berlin, Sundance and Toronto, followed by Tribeca and SXSW. So, if your film doesn’t get into one of those, then you might as well focus directly on getting a distributor and not spend the next 12-18 months playing festivals that won’t advance your career.

Furthermore, if you do wrangle a spot in one of the festivals above, you should accept the offer and thank your lucky stars. I recently spoke to a filmmaker who turned down Berlin to play his film at Rotterdam. Why would anyone do that? Regardless of how hip and cool Rotterdam is (which is what I’ve heard from many accounts), it’s simply not Berlin. Thus, choosing a less significant film festival over a titan is like choosing to drive a Camaro over a Ferrari. Sure, Camaros are rocket-fast, but they’re nowhere near as head turning as Ferraris.

Submission Timeframes
The quickest anyone will get back to you on your film, TV pilot or screenplay, is two weeks, and more than likely your response time will be four to six weeks or more. People don’t generally view new projects quickly, unless they’re an immense amount of heat on the project, i.e. a major film festival win, A-list attachment, or verifiable financing. So, if somebody does get back to you incredibly fast, they either a) love the material and are about to change your life, or b) they have very little going on in their careers and are looking for the next project to sink their creative teeth into.

Option Prices (for Scripts)
Should you get someone to spend the next year or two bringing your written words to life, don’t expect them to give you a huge payday to do so. Just having a credited producer wanting to develop your film with you is a huge step in the right direction. So, unless you’re script wins Sundance or the Nicholl Fellowship and has multiple studios bidding on it, your option will be in the mid-three to low-four figure range ($500 to $1,500, not the five, six or seven figure range).

Side Note: All of the points we just discussed above are meant to help you understand what to expect, but by no means are they absolute certainties. Thus, yes, you can breakout and make silly amounts of money your first time out. It’s highly unlikely, but of course it can happen. I just want you to know what to expect in 99.9999999% of the time, so know how to navigate your future.

Okay, filmmakers, that’s what I have for you today. As always, I thank you for lending me your eyes, and I look forward to borrowing them again next Tuesday. Until then, have a tremendous week! I can be followed on Twitter @Lonelyseal.

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  1. Mark Bell says:

    I have to respectfully disagree with the film festival point, and I think it comes down to a question of goals for your film and career. While a select few are probably the best for finding distribution, the range expands when you consider how many fests are good for building audiences. Also, the smaller fests tend to remove some of the stress to find those distributors, which often allows for a more relaxed environment and an opportunity to network amongst the other filmmakers in the fest, which too often results in filmmakers collaborating down the road. Finally, the dream of a theatrical screening is a hard one to achieve, and in many cases, the film festival circuit is the closest to a theatrical experience many a film will have (especially in a VOD world). I think it is important to remember that film festivals are about more than just finding distribution, and as far as advancing one’s career, building an audience is an immensely important aspect to remember, especially considering how many filmmakers go back to that audience to crowdfund nowadays.

    As Dan Mirvish of Slamdance has noted on many an occasion, if you make a film and no one sees it, did you actually make a film? Holding out for a few big fests can lead to losing almost an entire year where your film could be out there being seen, and getting into those fests is no guarantee anyway. Just ask all the Sundance films that play annually that, for whatever reason, get lost amidst the noise generated by the 10-15 bigger buzz films during the fest. You might land a distributor by going direct to that route, but you also might not make much money and get lost amidst the noise of all the other content out there. The film festival route is not for everyone and every film, and again it speaks to personal goals, but there is much value to be hand in going on the film festival circuit, even if you never play the big name fests. Just, you know, be smart about it. There’s enough info out there nowadays that you can research a fest long before you submit, know what tastes the programmers have and whether your film would be a good fit, or even if the fest is worth your time, so be smart about it.

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