Monday Prescriptions – First Feature Traps (And How Not to Fall Into Them)

Film Doctor friends!

Let’s say hello to another productive week and a brand new Monday Prescription

Today we talk about the most common traps that first-time film Directors and Producers fall in to (selling a script is different territory, so for all you Screenwriters out there we will dedicate a separate post to that).

Here’s a list of common mistakes and how to avoid them:

Film Doctor - First Feature Film Traps

– Not developing a “Package”

This is the biggest problem. We have already talked about film packages, what to include and why it is important to have one before promoting your project – and we cannot emphasise enough how essential this is.

Few first-time feature film projects are actually packaged well. If you are set to make your first feature film yourself , it is not enough to have a killer script. Any potential investors, sales agents, executives – or whoever you’re trying to get on board – will want to see as much evidence of your expertise, as possible.

As films from first-timers carry extra risk, your goal is to think about actors you would like to attach – not just from a creative point of view, but also considering what “names” can open doors for you.

Think about your target audience and how you would like to reach them – start putting together some notes on marketing and distribution strategies. Think about what sources of funding can be used for your project. All of these aspects, plus a myriad of other thought-through details, will help you create an attractive package, which will increase your chances of having your projects noticed by the right parties.

– Relying on crowdfunding

Indiegogo, Kickstarter, Slated, Razoo…crowdfunding has been a buzz word for quite some time now and film folk are no strangers to this idea for ‘fueling’ projects by other people’s kindness.

Of course, there are some success stories, with film budgets being at least partially raised through crowdfunding platforms – Eat With MeThe Cyanide & Happiness , The Age of Stupid – but before you jump on the bandwagon, let’s consider some aspects involved in the more successful case studies.

Firstly, the top crowdfunding campaigns come from established film industry ‘players’, e.g. Zach Braff’s case. Alternatively, they are based on an already proven concept/project – like the Kickstarter’s record-breaker Veronica Mars the movie , which will star Kristen Bell (“established film industry player”? – check),  and is based on an already successful TV series (“already proven concept”? – check).

Which kind of brings us back to the first point about having an attractive package – a “name” attached certainly does wonders.

In the case of “first-timers”, crowdfunding would work better for shorts rather than features, and smaller budgets rather than expansive productions. So you might want to consider the nature of your project, figuring out whether crowdfunding is actually right for you and what likely results you might get.

And certainly don’t put all your eggs into one, crowdfunding, basket – even if you do get some money out of it, chances are you’ll need other financing sources to ‘fill in the gaps’.

Film Doctor - Breaking the piggy bank

– Under/overestimating the budget for your film  

Do you know how to spread the money for your production? Have you accounted for all the expenses that your first feature film might incur? It could be difficult to move on from short film budgets – and money managing techniques – to feature film budgets, simply because you might not be able to imagine the full scale of the project you’re prepping for. Which means you might not be able to imagine all the expense categories – e.g. not account for a certain crew member or production element, leading to underestimations in your budget calculations.

The danger? You run out of money before your even halfway through the shoot. The flip side to this is asking for more money than necessary/taking out a huge loan and splashing out, without managing resources properly, incurring more costs than your project really requires and, in short, overpaying.

So just really carefully assess all the key elements of your production while still at script stage – amount and type of locations, cast, genre, time period, etc., all those things that influence costing decisions, before coming up with budget estimates. 

Quick tip: main areas that are likely to inflate your film’s budget are “Production Design” (with all the props and special effects that might be required), “Cast” (if going for ‘A’-listers or close; loads of ‘Extras’), “Transportation” (if planning to shoot in multiple locations – even more so if multiple countries!).

Unrealistic expectations / Selling yourself short

Both equally dangerous traps for first-timers: you want this to be the best movie possible, while you settle for whatever you can get, excited from the thought that you are actually getting anything. 

Firstly, know your value! Have you put your project to test – pitched it around, got a script reader feedback, etc. – and came out with an overall verdict that it’s “s**t hot stuff”? Then do it justice! Don’t comprise too much with the cast you want, the production level you want, the fees you want.

On the other hand, don’t set out making your first feature film with the belief that you’re going to wake up rich once it’s done. Practice shows that first films (if all goes well) are usually critical, not commercial successes.  So, be realistic in your expectations for your feature debut.


– Bad team management: The Tyrant, The Pushover, The Control-Freak and other things a first-time Director becomes 

It is usual for a first-time Director to feel under-confident on set – the lack of experience might get the best of one’s nerves and fail you when attempting to manage the whole production. The biggest mistake you can make is adopting two of these types of behaviour – The Tyrant or The Pushover. Both are just ways to deal with your own insecurities: you either get too bossy and demanding with everyone, hoping this will establish your authority on set (so that no one questions your experience) or you desperately try to please everyone (impossible!), sacrificing not only your own ideas, but also jeopardising the production schedule, budget and the project’s overall coherence.

Don’t fall for your own lack of confidence – no one will question your right to Direct/Produce until you do so yourself. You’ve got this far – you must be doing something right. So don’t be intimidated by possible  “stars” or veteran crew members – you are all in the same boat there, trying to make the best possible movie.

Furthermore, don’t fall into the trap of failing to delegate – you should be able to rely on your team and not strive to do everything yourself. The key is to know what you want and be a good communicator, as well as motivator – so that everyone else around also works towards the same result.

Film Doctor - First-time Directors

– Not knowing why you are making the film  

It all boils down to really knowing your project. You might remember that the Film Doctor team prepared a handy checklist of questions to answer before setting up your feature film?

So until you’ve cleared everything in your own head, you cannot get a team together, you cannot communicate and/or sell the idea, you cannot look for time and money to make a film happen.  Get going!!

‘Monday Prescription’ No.67 – Be wary in your journey towards your hallowed first feature film project. It can be rewarding, but if you cannot recognise the warning signs, you are in danger of enduring more pitfalls than necessary.

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Any questions/thoughts/experiences of your own??? Leave a comment below!
Have a great week!
The Film Doctor Team
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