I have a sense that this blog is going to cover tremendous ground, but let me start explaining this #process if you live in a country like Ecuador where there is no film industry per se, and in Hollywood, where there is a very strong and established film industry. How do you do? How do you convert your screenplay into a project?
First and foremost, a screenplay is not a novel, but rather a blueprint of what it could turn out to be a film, therefore you need to have a finished, well treated, well proofread and sellable product. Is it a comedy, action or thriller screenplay?, An auteur story? Whatever it is, it has to be bankable, meaning: Will this particular screenplay that you want to turn it into a movie draw an arthouse crowd, your mother, grandmother and sisters, or it will draw thousands of people to the theaters? I think one needs to be very clear on what story you have in your hands before making any move, because the first step is to get a producer. When approaching a production company, producers will read your script, and would figure out if they like it or not, then, if they fall for it, will they be interested in collaborating with you as the producers of the project? If yes is the answer, your first step is sealed. Your screenplay can now be called a project. In the early stages of a project development, a producer needs to think of how does he or she can sell this story to get funds to produce it, and second, what are going to be the ways in which your producer will sell the project, and third, when is the right time to produce it.
David peoples, who is a very famous screenwriter in Hollywood wrote a screenplay called "Unforgiven" in the 80´s and presented it to Clint Eastwood, who loved the material but felt at the time that he wasn't ready to make this project into a movie, and he locked the screenplay in his office for a couple of years, having purchased the rights from Peoples. Then, at the beginning of the 90's, Eastwood decided that it was about time to make this story into a motion picture, and he did. The film earned a couple of Oscars (including best director for Eastwood ) and its considered a western classic.
But back to our subject, a horror project can't be sold the same way as a romantic drama or a comedy. The producer needs to fit his or her selling needs according to the material he os she has to sell. Once that is defined, the producer now looks at how much the making of this project will cost to turn it into a movie, by doing a breakdown of the screenplay. Many producers tend to double the budget on purpose so that they can get as much cash as possible, and here in Ecuador, they need to sell you (the writer-director) as well, so the hustling occurs as a pair. Trust me, it's better to have someone at your side than handling the kicks and punches alone while knocking on doors.
In Ecuador, as in many countries around the world, there are film commissions that belong to the state (in other words, they work with public government funds). The main cinematic organism here is called the ICCA Ecuador (formerly CNCINE), which works under the umbrella of the Ministry of Culture of Ecuador. There are similar organisms as such in Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico and all over the world. The ICCA is the government agency that deals with the production of films and audiovisual projects in Ecuador, and one of their main tasks is to grant funds to projects in different stages of development. Your producer will make a package and apply for these funds, because first of all they are local, and second of all it's cash. Applying for the funds usually takes once a year and it is your producers job to do it, by participating in a convocatory , where a jury is chosen to filter and select those projects who will go to the pitching section. I am absolutely sure that they receive a lot of rubbish that they need to clear in favor of less rubbish projects.Here in Ecuador, the process of delivering the material can be physical or digital and they usually give a time frame to do it. If your project is not selected, they will notify you, and you have to analyze why it wasn't selected and keep competing for the next convocation. And if your project is selected for pitching, then you have to prepare yourself before you go to the pitching committee.
Pitching is horrendous because it drains your nerves in and out, but it's key because judges want to hear your story and they want to see how much passionate you are of making your project into a movie. Judges as well want to see if this project is doable. Some of us folks are native sellers, other of us can't sell a pickle if we tried a hundred times and so we have to make a worthy effort.
But before taking the stand, it is recommended that you might want to seduce private investors, and your producer will need to develop an agenda of places to visit, knowing that not everyone is going to give you money, but hopefully some will. If you get some cash from the private sector, this helps in a way your process with the ICCA because they can see that you are finding financing not just through them but also on your own. Judges will definitely look at this and it might give your project a plus, because if you and your producer come to the pitching section with cash secured from other places, it will show them that you are really serious about making a movie, and that you are not waiting for a single entity to give you funds. Trust me, this really helps, even if it is a 1.000 dollars from a company and 2.000 dollars from another company and so on. Everyone here in Ecuador does this because it is a requisite the ICCA states, so, from the smallest production company to the biggest, they are all scrambling anywhere they can to get funds before facing the judges, when you submit your paperwork. You need to have various fronts open, and you cannot spend four months until the ICCA announces the pitching days not doing anything, after all, you are the main guardian of your work and nobody is going to care more for it than yourself and your producer. You are the person that dreams to make a picture out of your screenplay, not anyone else.
So, once you have completed your hustling tour with your best man or woman (the producer), the time has come to enter the room or auditorium and wait for your turn to face the ICCA judges. From what I know the projects have to follow certain rules like: A. Is the crew of your project Ecuadorians or foreigners with a valid work permit in Ecuador? Your project needs to meet a certain percentage of Ecuadorian citizens or residents, even if it is a co-production. B. Is the project doable with the budget presented?, C. Is it a project that can realistically be done?, and many other variables. I don't mind these variables at all because if they give you funds, it's to boost the local film scene, but, I really don't like bureaucracy at all and as a film maker, I hate to think that a bunch of judges can coincide and decide the validity of my work or if it is doable according to them, or not, but unfortunately there aren't many choices here and you need funds in order to make a movie. Of course you are not going to present a project that would cost 3000 million dollars to make, with big sets, and astronauts taking over a planet because that would scare the committee and here in Ecuador it would be almost impossible to make. The fact is that personally I have my doubts for a single reason.
Since its forming well over 20 years ago, the ICCA (Then CNCINE), has granted funds to projects that can be identified as small, socio political personal films, and to some extent to some historical and action based movies, but It has a reputation of being biased leaning for certain "well known" directors and pushing away the not so well know ones. Also,most of it's members are heavily politicized and most of them lean to the left and they would prefer a Lucretia Martel alike project rather than a Steven Spielberg alike project. Personally they put me a Martel movie and in 10 minutes I'm either snoozing in the theatre or leaving it, but it's a personal opinion. Now, sticking to the subject matter, prior to the pitching sessions, you and your producer are ready to throw the dice and see what happens.
So then you do the pitching, 20, 30, 40 minutes in front of a panel of judges, and you probably leave that auditorium feeling as if a bulldozer has stepped all over you or just feeling fantastic about how all went. Either way, you are up for a series of months of waiting for the verdict, while you are still hustling for money on the private sector. I guess this is what everyone should do in order to get funds just in case those judges decide not in favor of your project, and if they decide in favor of it, you and your producers will need to sign agreements that will make sure that the funds being given to your project will not be spent decorating your apartment. You must prove that every cent given will be spend of the making of your project. Most producers will include a salary for the writer, writer-director and producer of the project based on the time either one has spend writing and promoting the project, which is a fair deed to do considering all the months and years of effort that you and your producer have undergone writing and promoting this dream movie of yours that you and your producer hope to shoot.
And so finally the day of the verdict comes. Here in Ecuador the announcement is made via e-mail, facebook and instagram. Usually via live feed people can see and hear the process. You are invited to an auditorium, and meet the judges again and they start to read out loud. The verdict si read and it only mentions the winners of each category. Yearly the cash that the ICCA has to allocate varies for various reasons, mostly linked to the economy of the state, change of policies, and even change of regimes. It's never the same. A few years ago they reached a 5 million dollar peak, and last year, they cut the budget by half. I remember when this happened and all the social networks exploded. The film makers were angry and where going to burn the ICCA to the ground it seemed, because they felt the state has an obligation to them and many of them would not even touch the private sector because of their anti capitalist thinking. I kid you not, most Ecuadorian film makers still think communism is the way to go, which I obviously find extraordinarily pathetic and narrow-minded, but, again, going back to the subject, if they grant your project the funds for that specific category, you probably think it's one of the greatest days of your life. You go out at night, get wasted, you dance and then the next day its business as usual because those funds will take weeks before they are allocated to you project. They need to be verified by the Ministry of Finance and so forth, and you and your producer still acting as executive producers will still be looking for more cash in the private sector, knowing that many companies will reject you while others might be interested and only a few will give you their checks while also negotiating with them how their money invested in your project will benefit them, because NOTHING IS FOR FREE. Nothing. They will ask you for product placement, banners at the premiere and so many other things. You just lower down your pants even more for a worthy cause.
But, If you don't get those ICCA funds, Is it the end of the universe? Will you commit suicide? Would you quit the business of your dreams? For five to ten minutes all of these thoughts will seem to very applicable options, but then, after being hysterically mad, you and your producer get up and continue gathering money. Sometimes not getting these funds can be a relief to a lot of film makers mostly because of the burden of paperwork and the feel of having more creative freedoms, even if getting these funds does allow you and your producer to apply to international funds such as PROGRAMA IBERMEDIA, HUBELS FUNDS, SUNDANCE INSTITUTE and will allow you to look for co productions with other countries in order for your project to get more funds and grow. Having the seal of the ICCA will allow your project to travel to film markets such as Ventana Sur, Berlinale Film Market or Marche du Film in Cannes to find co productions, where you hustle again, but this time to an international audience that is going to be filled with producers of other countries looking to forge co productions and agents looking to sell your project and gain a percentage of the sales for them. Either way, they hustle, you hustle and everyone around you hustles. It is a gigantic whorehouse.
But not getting these funds is definitely not the end of the world. A few years ago, I participated as the main set photographer here in Ecuador, in a feature film directed by Viviana Cordero called "Solo es una mas", or "Its just one more". The plot gravitated around a central character who is epileptic and deals with the variants of having that condition while trying to have a normal life. The main character is played by the same young man whom the story of the movie is based on. Viviana is one of the most recognized female film and theatre director in this country, and she is also a novelist. It took her three years to write alongside the main character the screen play of this movie, and she, like many others, applied to the ICCA funds (Then CNCINE) in the development category, even if she knew that she was not going to get them because according to her, many people in the institute have a history of not liking her (despite the fact that she has made five films before) and other variants. When she got the notification of the NO, she was not impressed and she and her team kept going. Independently of what I think about the movie, she shot her movie and it premiered in theaters all over the country. Her name is very important in the cultural universe of Ecuador, and she was able to sustain her project with her own money as well as cash from companies that she and the main character visited.
Another example is, yes, myself. When I shot my last short film "Jackie", the entire process took me about 2 years to complete: from the screenplay written in France, to principal photography shot in Ecuador, to film stock being developed in Argentina, to editing in Ecuador, to make a final cut in Canada and finally sending it to festivals. I remember that year that I arrived back from France I was already late to apply for anything at the CNCINE and financing was going to have to come straight from my family's pocket. Hardly anyone gives grants to short films for a start, and it was very hard to get corporate sponsorships because of the plot of the movie itself. So I told my family: Let me do this as good as a I can deliver and I promise you that your funds are not going to be wasted. So I started gather thing up my crew, knowing this person and having him or her introduce me to that person and so forth. and I got them one by one all exited because of: A. The theme of the movie, and B. The format I was going to shoot it in (super 8 mm Kodak color) and C., Because my DP was going to come from France with his own equipment. It was my money that I was using for this purpose, and it gave the freedom I needed to do what I did, which was: gather a great group of a crew, cast it right, scout locations, shoot it, develop the material, edit and and then distributing the film. In the end , the film had a run of 7 or 8 festivals across the world and I picked up three awards. So, obviously if you have money, you can do it but with feature films its obvious that you need to have some money to be completely free and produce your project the way you want. You can shoot a feature film here for 10,000 dollars, but a short film is an introductory calling card that serves as presenting your work to the world but they are not bankable commodities in general (with a few exceptions of distributors you can buy your short), unlike feature films. So, when you receive a no, think about other possibilities to develop your project. Now, this is how it works here in Ecuador and I'm quite sure in other countries in the region as well, which then leads me to ask myself: "How does it work in a place like Hollywood where there is a strong, well structured and profitable film industry?"
In Hollywood, screenwriters are screen writers, producers are producers, directors are directors, DP's are DP's and everyone specializes in one thing only (with a few exceptions of course). This is a place filled with unions and societies whose aim is to create a system where the relationship between the service providers and their employees (screenwriter's for instance vs production companies) is regulated, and where different channels exist in order for your screenplay to be seen by the rest of the world. Usually what screenwriters do is they approach a number of production companies in the hopes that a copy of your work might be read by the right people, or sometimes you try to get the attention of an actor or an actress that might be interested in the project and he or she can take it around town to see if anyone might be interested in reading it. This process is referred to as "Shopping it around". It's like throwing around a carnage in a pond and waiting for a fish to bite it. Now if your script is a television or internet streaming story, you take it to places and people who work in those areas. If your screenplay is a movie then you take it to movie people because TV and internet streaming executives are not the same as movie executives. Companies like Netflix have different departments that deal with different types of projects and those departments are not run by the same individuals usually. So, you basically take it around and show it to people, and you have to be prepared for a shower of rejections and just a single yes from a producer that is going to make a difference.
But then, god knows how long this might take: months or even years, or you have a lucky star above you and you get people interested without much effort (although this hardly ever happens) and you land a deal with a free lance producer or a producer with a production company. So once you have that key person, he or she is going to be interested in either buying you the rights of your work, or bring you along with them in the process of utter hustling. Either way, they have to take the script and become themselves executive producers, or look for executive producers who will start bringing cash in the early stages of development of the project, because once a producer takes notice of your work, it becomes a project, that needs to be shopped around town for months or even years, which means going to studios, talent agencies and other producers to try and create a fuss of this project. Sometimes a studio might buy a screenplay for an x amount of money, and then the writer "thank you and au revoir" and they produce it themselves, while sometimes a project will be developed and co produced by more than one studio, with you, the writer, taking part. In indie productions (where the financing for development and production comes from other sources rather than studio money), the producer of your project might take you along to visit film markets like Ventana Sur (In South America), Sundance, Berlinale film market at the Berlinale, or to the Marche du Film at the Cannes Film Festival, among others, to find film financiers or to sell the project to studios, agents and other production companies both in the United States or abroad. In Hollywood, there is one and a thousand norms to get this done. It is very chaotic but there are many, many options to choose and proceed.
If the project is a very low budget film about two lesbians for instance, that producer in the States can find a co producer in France or in countries where the subject matter could be sold more easily, unlike what happens to superheroe movies, who can sell world wide billions of dollars. And so, for instance, let'´s assume that your project is a medium size budget feature film in the range of 30 million dollars, would you take it to a huge studio like paramount or would you take it to Amazon studios or Netflix? Amazon studios and Netflix are companies who rely primarily on subscriptions to stay afloat and not so much on ticket sales or opening weekends like studios do. In the 30 million dollar budget movie, you might have a better chance to approach those Silicon Valley companies rather than the usual run of the mill studios like Universal or Sony pictures, because companies like Netflix, Amazon studios and soon Apple TV are more interested in bringing more original content projects and maximizing their subscribers profits , instead of promoting a 30 million budget movie who might be a complete failure at the box office.
Take the Example of Alfonso Cuaron´s latest movie: Roma. Who released it? Netflix (both in the platform and in selected theaters). This film was set in Mexico in the 1970's, was shot in black and white in Mexico City, had both indigenous and Spanish dialogue, had no Hollywood stars,and the main actress ws a non actress. The film must have cost 10 million tops and managed to sweep away every single award it was up against, including some Oscars. If this movie would have been released only in theaters in the USA it would have crashed completely, and utterly. So, Netflix was the very right way to go for Cuaron, who he himself has directed many successful Hollywood blockbusters. But then again, which ever path is taken, the most important aspect is that the story of your project needs to be interestingly enough in order to get the attention of any studio or company and most importantly to gather a great group of crews and screen talent. Usually projects with stars or big talents attached to them (directors), gather more attention in the markets and in the studios because talents sell. If your project comes attached with Meryl Streep, it's more bankable than with Mary go around, even if Meryl is going to play a lesbian trucker as the main character who is going to be directed by Martin Scorsese, instead of Mary go around being a beautiful princess and directed by John Doe. And what happens of your project includes Meryl Streep, Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks? Your chances of selling that project and develop it will increase ten times fold. In my opinion, this is how it works in places like Hollywood.
So, once your project has the initial budget in order needed, with a producer and or with a production company (or with multiple production companies) and with talents attached to it , wether you are in Ecuador, Colombia, The United States, China, Mongolia or whatever, then your project can proceed to the next stage in the film process called development (which is going to be the subject of episode three),
I do want to end this episode by saying that your project will advance as long as the story is intriguing, the characters are interesting and the plot is unique, because all of these characteristics are going to attract people: producers want to make films that would sell, financiers will want to invest in projects that will give them returns and talents, (both actors and technicians), want to get their hands on projects that will elevate their craft.
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